Winnipeg producers selling homemade goods are turning to community kitchens to transform their businesses into commercial ventures that comply with complicated government food regulations.
"My wife started the business four years ago to take the pressure off me," said Jeff Poon, co-owner of Winnipeg's Sweet C Bakery. "We started out at home and then got to the point where we got so big, so quick that the health department got the word of our operation, so we had to get a commercial kitchen."
Poon said the couple was able to bake from home only when selling at local farmers' markets. That's a reality that can be restricting for many home-based producers in Canada, sometimes called "cottage food producers."
"There was a movement in the U.S. to adopt cottage food laws and in Canada it really hasn't happened." said Glenford Jameson, a food lawyer with G.S. Jameson & Company in Toronto.
"A lot of regulations in Canada have been in place for quite a long time, whereas U.S. states like Texas, California or Ohio have really moved to make space for the home baker, the home candy maker and the home jam maker," he said.
All states except New Jersey and Hawaii have cottage food laws which allow producers to cook low-risk foods like pie, bread and jam at home and sell to individual consumers. Some states restrict sale to farmers' markets, charity and bake sales. Canada has a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws and guidelines that can be confusing to people starting out.
"This presents a barrier to people who are passionate and skilled, want to create food and don't have access to a commercial kitchen," Jameson said.
The Poons turned to The Kitchen Sync, a newly-opened commercial kitchen, when hunger for their products grew and they expanded into retail sales.
"To have a facility like this is essential," said Sheila Bennett, owner of the kitchen. "They have to go through a lot of different permits and regulations to sell products at the retail level."
Her kitchen costs between $18 to $28 per hour to rent, depending on the time of day, and it can help producers gear up their production.
"The benefits are numerous" she said. "You are allowed to do a lot more in the same amount of time."
Winnipeg pie baker Heather Daymond started Shut Ur Pie Hole three years ago from her home kitchen after word-of-mouth spread about her pies.
"It was quickly growing, so I knew I needed to find somewhere safe to store product, meet all those requirements to make that next step," Daymond said.
Another baker told her about the Knox Community Kitchen in the basement of the Knox Community Church near Central Park in Winnipeg. Daymond pays $10 per hour and shares the space with up to 13 other food producers.
"It makes a safety point for my customer," she said.
"The rules really aren't that crystal clear," she admits, saying food regulations can be complicated for someone just starting out.
No cottage food laws
There are no specific cottage food laws in Canada and guidelines vary by province.
Prince Edward Island sets out cottage industry guidelines that require a completely separate area in the home for food preparation. Manitoba, Ontario and other provinces allow producers to sell some lower-risk homemade items like jams, jellies and baked goods at farmers' markets with permits issued by the government.
All other food preparation must be done in a licensed food premises, and that can be very expensive to set up.
Daymond said community kitchens offer an ability to try out a business without investing a huge amount of money.
"It's phenomenal what a $10-an-hour kitchen can do to a small business." she said.