Monday, July 24, 2006

Getting Legal

Anyone who makes cakes thinks about it at some point… maybe I could make a business of this. Maybe I could actually start paying for the hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars I have invested in this “hobby.” Either you’re getting requests from friends of friends, or little Sally’s Mom saw your daughter’s cake at her party and wants one for little Sally, or perhaps you have been selling them a little on the side, and you’re getting a little higher profile. Whatever your reasons, you want to sell cakes for money.

Realistically, if you don’t plaster a big sign on the front of your house, you don’t tick off your neighbors, and you don’t poison anyone, the odds of getting caught are fairly slim. As a home baker of non-hazardous (assuming you don’t bake meat pies, etc) products, you are very low on the list of kitchens to be inspected. Also, it is likely that the first time you get caught, you’ll be told to stop until such a time as you can be classified as a legal kitchen. However, honesty is usually the best policy, and many of the requirements are really a good idea to comply with in any case. So do what you think is right, and even if you decide not to go “legal” at this point, see what you can incorporate into your “business”!

So what now?

Well there is no short or universal answer. Unfortunately pretty much every township has different (and usually unclear) rules and by-laws which govern home baking. The trick is finding out who to even talk to in order to get a straight answer. That too can differ from one city to the next. So… set aside a few hours (and expect it to take a couple of sessions,) get out a pad of paper and a pen, and get comfortable with your phone. Pull out your phone book and start searching the government listings. You will need to deal with local government first, though you may also need to speak to provincial/state government as well.

HOWEVER, before you do that, do your homework and have some information at the ready… the last thing you want to do is have to wait on hold for another 20 minutes because you didn’t have the information in front of you!

Warning… this may not cover every question you will hear, but it’s a good start!!!

  • Your address (you’ll need this when talking to the zoning people!)
  • Do you own or rent (it’s usually illegal to sell goods out of a rented living space!)
  • How much business do you expect to do a week/ month? (Sometimes, if you are selling less than a certain number, they may tell you that you’re fine… IF you get this, make SURE you get the person’s name you spoke to, their title and department! Then if it should come back that they were wrong, you’ve at least got something to back up your claim! If you can get them to e-mail you and put it in writing… even better!!!)
  • What sorts of things will you sell? Cakes, cookies, other desserts, breads? Sometimes the rules are different (especially if you get into meat pies or other baking!)
  • Are you insured? Standard household insurance will likely not cover you if someone falls down on your icy sidewalk while picking up a cake, and DEFINITELY won’t cover you if someone get sick & sues you! Talk to your insurance agent.
  • If you have already applied for a business registration license (this is different and usually separate from having a legal kitchen!!!)
  • If you have taken any safe food handling courses (many municipalities or states/provinces offer these courses at a very low cost! It’s usually a good thing to do, even if you’re not “going legal” but will go a long way towards your goal of getting legal if that’s your aim!)

Things you will want to ask them:

  • Their name and position (and date & time of your call)
  • Am I allowed to advertise? What constitutes advertising? Business cards?
  • Am I allowed to put a sign on my house? Is there a maximum size?
  • What are the minimum requirements to operate a legal kitchen for the purpose of selling to the public? What is recommended?
  • Can I get that in writing? What by-law or regulation is this covered under?
  • How often do I need to be inspected to maintain legal status? What should I expect to happen during an inspection?
  • Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?

In order to have your kitchen certified “legal” you may have to have some or all of these requirements, but these are the most common (there may be others in your area… you need to ask!)

  • No pets… or at least a way to keep the pets out of your work area (some areas may require not pets in the household, regardless of any barriers!)
  • Food storage usually has to be a minimum height off the floor
  • Appropriate food storage facilities
  • Poisons are not stored with the same area as food (think ant traps, cleaning fluids, etc)
  • Two or three wash-up sinks (washing, rinsing, sanitizing)
  • Note; sometimes a dishwasher with a sanitizing rinse is considered an acceptable substitute for the 3-sink requirement)
  • Separate hand washing facilities on the same floor (usually in the washroom)
  • Anti-bacterial soap & disposable drying towels at that station
  • Separate storage areas for raw foods from prepared ones (yes, that generally means a 2nd fridge!)
  • Sometime a separate oven or range is required
  • Sometimes an entirely separate kitchen, with a separate entrance is required!

Now, departments you will likely have to talk to include:

  • Health department / inspector
  • Zoning By-law department
  • Business Licensing department

Other people you SHOULD talk to:

  • Your neighbors: tell them what you’re trying to do, and really hear their concerns. Assure them that you’ll continue to be a good neighbor. If someone next door has a really fussy baby that sleeps from 2-4, then try to avoid having people arrive during that time (but this is a business, if you can’t avoid it, at least ask your clients to keep it down if they’re arriving in that time frame.) Also, free goodies are a wonderful source of good will! If you’ve got a little cake left over, or bake a few extra cookies, share it around! Offer them coupons for a discount off your baking (neighbors can make good clients too!)
  • An accountant: if you are running a legitimate business, you will need to report your income at tax time. An accountant can tell you what documents and records you need to keep, deductions you may not have thought of, and other information that may help your business.
  • Your insurance agent: I said it before, but it’s important… if something business related happens, you won’t be covered, and even if something non-business related happens (like a fire or a break-in) you may negate your existing household insurance if they find out about your business and you didn’t tell them!

Other things you should consider:

  • Parking: is there a spot your clients can use without inconveniencing your neighbors? (Unless you plan to deliver every cake!)
  • General Safety: are our railings in good order? Is the walk-way clear of toys and obstacles? Have you cleared ice & snow from your sidewalk?
  • General Appearance: first impressions are a big deal in a business. Make sure the front of your house is tidy, and reasonably well maintained. Even a small hanging basket or a couple of flower pots can really perk up a yard. Can’t paint your whole house? A fresh coat of paint on the door your clients will be using can make all the difference!
  • Accessibility: can a disabled person get to you? This is not a huge problem, as you can always bring a cake out to the car for them, or meet them in a coffee shop for a consultation, but you should be aware of this and have back-up plans at the ready (looks MUCH more professional!)
  • Safety: if you have clients coming to your home, you need to be aware of your own security. It’s a sad sign of the times, but you often don’t really know who your clients are. If you’re concerned about safety, you may prefer to deliver all your cakes, or make sure someone else is home when a client comes to your house.
  • Educate yourself: do you know the basics of food safety? Do you know how cross-contamination happens? What items need to be refrigerated? How long can they safely be kept out? Additionally, what are the more common food allergens? Could they have come in contact with (or be contained in) any of your products? Especially if you use mixes or pre-made products, you need to know what’s in them. It’s up to your clients to tell you about food allergies (though it’s always a good idea to ask… you may jog their memory about a guest with allergies) but it’s up to you to know your products. It is okay to tell a client that you cannot accommodate their request if you are not confident, or you can tell them what precautions you are able to take, and let them make a decision. (I recommend as a minimum running every clean item you will use through the dishwasher again with no other dishes in it, then inspecting each one for food that was not removed. A peanut allergy can be fatal, and can be triggered by miniscule traces of peanut contamination. If you can, keep a set of utensils & bowls that are not used with any kind of nut – ever. I usually tell clients that mine is not a nut-free home, but I take the above precautions. It’s then up to them if they want to place an order with me, or find someone who can guarantee a nut-free environment.)


  1. This is a great post! There is so much bad information out there, but you've pretty much told it like it is. I'd never read your blog before, but I'm enjoying your insights so much... keep it going!
    Take care,

  2. I had a woman call me about an advertisement I had posted on a memo board outside a local business. She refered to my ad as "illegal". Stating that I can not post any pic that has a cake that was made in a Wilton pan for profit. I can not have a home based business without a seperate kitchen. Is this woman for real? Has she looked on the internet in this century ? She was sweet enought to state she wasn't going to report me. Wow , in this day and age, you almost never want your phone number posted , or you never know what kind of whack jobs are going to call.

  3. The reality is that (for many municipalities) she is correct about the kitchen. As for the Wilton pans, any pan that is shaped like a licenced image is indeed only licenced for personal use and not for resale. That means you can sell a cake made in the "book" pan since it is generic, but it is illegal to sell "Micky Mouse" cakes.

    The fact that so many people do it, does not actually change the legality of what you are doing.


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