When Cody and Emily Miller became parents to identical triplets, they were told their multiple blessing came with one-in-a-million odds.
But as the trio — Finley, Milo and Oscar — moved to solid food, the Golden Valley couple faced a challenge that’s far from rare.
“Our pediatrician told us the boys weren’t getting enough vegetables, but they eat peanut butter and jelly like it’s their job,” Cody Miller said. “I got the idea that I could get some extra vegetables into them with jam.”
After testing dozens of original recipes in his kitchen, Miller landed on a few concoctions that his toddlers gobbled up.
From there it was a baby step to founding Funny Bunny Organics. Since launching his website (funnybunnyorganics.com) in March, Miller has sold 600 half-pint or 2-ounce jars, with such flavors as strawberry carrot, berry beet and blueberry kale.
He’s a regular at farmers markets in Golden Valley and Minnetonka, and delivers his sneaky jam to the doorsteps of customers who place a minimum $10 order.
“It’s truly a family business,” he said. “I’m able to make everything out of our home with the kids right there with me.”
A 2015 update of Minnesota’s cottage food law expands the options for Miller and hundreds of home cooks like him in building small food businesses that require no licensing, inspections, storefronts or commercial kitchens.
From pickles to popcorn, salsas to spice rubs, breads to brownies, cottage food producers are cooking up a storm. As of mid-July, there were 2,061 of them registered with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“Our previous law limited cottage food businesses to selling at farmers markets, which meant their customers could only find them six months of the year,” said Kathy Zeman, Minnesota Farmers Market Association operations manager. “The new cottage food law lets them sell out of their home year-round and advertise on the internet.”
There’s a national movement to allow motivated cooks to turn their handiwork into hard cash. During the recession, food laws in many states were loosened to allow amateurs to tap a revenue stream from their homes and gardens.
“Cottage food laws let people experiment, try out and tweak their products and get immediate feedback without making a big investment or accumulating debt. It’s a quick on-ramp for food entrepreneurs,” said Lisa Kivirist, author of “Homemade for Sale.” The 2015 book is filled with advice and resources for cooks ready to give it a go.
“Making something and selling it to your neighbors is the oldest newest thing,” she said with a laugh. “In our increasingly industrialized food world, when we don’t know where our food comes from, it’s the ultimate opportunity to meet the producer.”
The state law requires that cottage food businesses sell directly to their customers, meaning the products cannot be resold to stores or restaurants and cannot be shipped or mailed.
That typically requires the maker of the product to interact with the ultimate consumer.
“Consumers can and should ask questions of the person who made the product in their kitchen,” said Carrie Rigdon, response training and outreach supervisor for the state Department of Agriculture. “For example, if someone is highly allergic to cats, they might want to ask the producer if they have cats in their home.”
From the oven
Katie Kirkeby uses her interactions with customers to connect with their cravings, such as rhubarb or strawberry lemonade. She bakes 15 dozen to 20 dozen cupcakes a week in a propane-powered stove in her farmhouse in Gilman, Minn.
Using a website (cupkatesmn.com) and a Facebook page, Kirkeby takes orders and uses her online presence to let fans know where to find her Cupkate’s booth at farmers markets in central Minnesota.
She thinks customers who meet her will be reassured about the wholesomeness of her treats. “It’s my name on that label and my heart in that cupcake,” she said.
A home day-care provider and mother of two, Kirkeby has used her Cupkate’s cash for a family vacation and to pay down her college loans.
“I’m living a dream. I have my own passion beyond focusing on the kids and my husband,” she said. “If this would get a little bigger, that would be OK, but I like the flexibility of baking at home and being able to take time off if I need to. I don’t want a store. This is working out for us.”
But other cottage food producers have larger ambitions.
“Most people do this as a hobby or for a side income, but we see people using cottage foods to get their toe in the water,” Rigdon said. “But we’ve already heard from a few people who have been so successful that they’re ready to shift into being licensed food producers.”
Inspiration at home
For now, Miller is satisfied to come home from his real job at a retail headquarters, roll up his sleeves and start chopping locally sourced vegetables. “This is a way to feed my kids and get back to my passion of cooking,” he said.
But his thoughts occasionally drift to expanding beyond his kitchen stove. He’s been pleasantly surprised to find that many customers buy his enhanced jam to boost their own vegetable intake. He’s hearing from people who spoon his Funny Bunny products into yogurt or use it as a sauce for a charcuterie or cheese plate.
“We created a niche product, but it has spinoff potential,” he said. “So many people dream of starting a food business but think it’s too complex. The cottage food program really enables you to get going pretty easily.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.