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  • Writer's pictureIlysse Rimalovski

THE COOK NEXT DOOR By Ilysse Rimalovski; Photos By Julia Maloof Verderosa

Updated: May 9

Cottage food operators innovate from home



Perhaps you’ve been perfecting loaves of crusty sourdough in your home oven, wondering how to turn your hobby into a lucrative side hustle. Or you’re already selling your famous barbecued ribs from your backyard smoker without knowing it is against the law.


When New Jersey became the last state in the country to legalize home-based cottage food businesses in 2021, an entrepreneurial cohort of home-based cooks could finally apply for permits to sell certain foods (largely baked goods) made in their kitchens directly to their communities.


The COVID lockdown proved to be a fruitful period of innovation at home. Many cottage bakers trace their business origins to having that extra time in their kitchens, cooking first for family, then for friends and neighbors. The gift of sourdough starter catalyzed many hobbyist bakers who rose to the challenge and became obsessed.


Since then, more than 1,500 cottage food businesses have been born in New Jersey. Maybe you have already indulged in gourmet cereal treats, warm rosemary and salt bagels or a giant chocolate chip cookie prepared down the street.


The licenses only permit foods that do not need time or temperature controls to be safe for consumption. Maplewood Health Officer Candice Davenport says her priority is to protect the well-being of the community, preventing the possibility of foodborne illness. It is not her job to go from house to house in search of underground food producers. However, she says, “Once we know about them, we are obligated to give the best advice possible.”


In New Jersey, it is illegal to transact business as a home-based caterer, cooking instructor, supper club, micro-restaurant, or to sell dairy-based frosting on a cake. Such businesses require proper licensure and must use a commercial space, of which there are several nearby.

Garden State Kitchen is a full-service 24-hour commercial facility founded by Kris Ohleth in the Valley Arts District of Orange (featured in Matters Magazine 2022 Hearth + Home issue). The Maplewood Jewish Center also houses a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen for strictly kosher operations.


Group spaces such as the Co-Lab at South Orange are also invaluable to entrepreneurs such as Anne Mandell. As a founding member, she gained an instant storefront for her Cereal Dreams, co-marketing visibility, and access to state programs and initiatives typically reserved for brick-and-mortar businesses.


“Our mission is to support businesses at any stage of their journey,” says Co-Lab manager Nicole Kleinbaum. “That Anne is here shows you don’t need a big commercial space in order to be supported by the local community.”


Meet Four Residents Who Have Gotten Their Cottage Licenses

Anne Mandell
Cereal Dreams, Maplewood


Anne Mandell craved the nostalgic foods of her childhood. As an advertising account

executive newly freed from her job, she seized the opportunity to use her soft skills and satisfy a desire to start her own venture.


Cereal Dreams was a concept that was percolating for years: part cereal buffet, part cereal treats. Mandell realized that she could do it from home. She knew about the cottage permit process and decided to go for it, targeting Springfield Avenue’s Mayfest as her launch date. “It was a big day for me,” says Mandell, “A new old idea. Seeing the reaction was pretty impactful.”



Proving her concept in person, she could witness the emotional response from cereal fans of all ages. A year later, she moved Cereal Dreams to the Co-Lab in South Orange, further experimenting with products, pricing and marketing.


“I’ve never had such an opportunity to be so creative in my life,” she says. “When people come in looking for my cereal bar, I pinch myself.”


What’s next? Mandell envisions a cereal café that feels like your kitchen on a weekend morning. She wants to be known as the person who provides the ultimate cereal experience.


 

Stephen Joseph, Bite Me Bagels, Maplewood
IG/FB: @bitemebagels; bitemebagel.com

“With this permit, a cottage food operator can touch on a little piece of their dream and see if they want to expand it, or see if it’s better kept as a dream,” says Stephen Joseph, founder of Bite Me Bagels. “I don’t know if it’s having three kids or a decent job that I enjoy now, but it’s tough thinking about taking that next step again.”


Herein lies the conundrum facing many cottage bakers who started their businesses in earnest during the pandemic: What next? Joseph first attempted bagel making in 2018. He was working on a new concept that fell flat when his baking attempts were met with disaster. Fast forward to 2020 when a friend said, “Hey, it’s your turn with the sourdough starter,” reigniting his desire to make bagels.

He tried again, researching 50 different bagel recipes, reading bread books and finding mentors. He was an early recipient of a cottage food permit in New Jersey. Bagel making became an obsession for Joseph, day and night, tweaking recipes and techniques for months. “I’d burn them, toss them and restart,” Joseph recalls. “I still have bagel-maker imposter syndrome.”

Using Instagram, Joseph would announce that he’d be baking, taking orders until he sold out. Sunday mornings, while his wife was out teaching at Baker Street Yoga, he’d make and sell bagels from home while watching the kids, too.


When Joseph was selling his bagels, customers would pick them up at his home on Sunday mornings. Photo courtesy of Stephen Joseph.

Joseph hasn’t been making bagels much lately, other than feeding his family’s lunch habit.


Although he loves making bagels, he feels more fulfilled at his new job and wants to see how this all fits together, especially as his children’s weekend sports schedules compete with bagel making.


Growing up working in restaurants and catering, Joseph knows how difficult the business can be. Still, he has visions of something more unconventional than a typical brick-and-mortar storefront. He says, “This experience has opened a little crack in the door to things that previously seemed completely out of reach.”




 

Charles Hammer
The Rolling Bagel, Maplewood



“I started milling flour at home by accident during the pandemic when a friend bought me a pound of wheat berries,” says Charles Hammer, founder of The Rolling Bagel in Maplewood. “When I ordered the mill attachment for our mixer, I was hooked from the start.”


Hammer relished the opportunity for more control over his life and to do something he loved. He knew that he had to offer something that was unavailable elsewhere. Milling the flour at home made the difference, resulting in a heartier, healthier, more European flavor profile. Via Facebook and word-of-mouth, he found customers who appreciated his efforts.


Building his customer base and developing recipes that could scale, Hammer contemplated moving production to a commercial kitchen. And then reality set in. Given that his bagels needed 24 hours to rise, he’d have to rent a facility for prep time in addition to baking time, eating up a huge chunk of potential profit.



Hammer makes bagels as well as sourdough baguettes from his freshly-milled flour.

Doing the math, Hammer realized that he could not make enough money even on a batch of 1,000 bagels. “Bagel shops typically have big machines, use cheaper ingredients, and can sell egg sandwiches,” says Hammer. “That’s where they make their money, not off selling the bagel itself.”

Hammer dreams about having a micro-bakery on his property one day, a trend that involves building a commercial bakery at home. Perhaps, New Jersey will legalize that concept as laws evolve.


Until then, Hammer says, “Making bagels is a hobby, a hobby that pays for itself.” He usually bakes once a week and delivers directly to his customers. If you’re new to The Rolling Bagel, sign up for updates at therollingbagel.com.



 


Matt Ruzga, Porta Rossa
160 Jacoby Street, Maplewood
IG: (@porta_rossa_nj); portarossanj.com

When Matt Ruzga found himself making fresh fettuccine in his kitchen during COVID, he was closer to opening his own business than he realized.


He was already a highly respected chef at some of Manhattan’s finest restaurants. He loved the simplicity of making pasta. He had been working in kitchens since he was 14. He never had the idea to go out on his own.


With time on his hands, relegated to developing recipes at home, he got bored. He cooked for his family, and then for his friends who said, “People would love this.”


Given his cuisine, Ruzga obtained a food license that enabled him to cook and deliver out of Garden State Kitchen. It took a few months to work out the logistics. He’d pack up coolers filled with ice, deliver specialties to customers’ homes, then return and repeat.

He created a droolworthy Instagram page. He’d email blast friends with his offerings, and then slowly, the list grew. “And then it got crazy,” said Ruzga. “I learned how to do e-commerce through Shopify, and it was so much easier.”


With more than 300 customers, and an average of 100 food drops per week, he started looking casually for his own space. When a space on Jacoby Street became available, it was destiny. Within six months, Ruzga opened Porta Rossa, a pasta and specialty grocery store and eatery showcasing his style of elevated simplicity. With seating indoors and outside, customers can grab a sandwich, pasta or salad for lunch, pick up a prepared meal for dinner or satisfy that sweet tooth with homemade gelato or cannoli. Offerings change daily.


Fellow food operators have not only been watching carefully, they’ve come to regard Ruzga as a mentor, an example of what is [and is not] possible. Even with years of practice and hard work, Ruzga still can’t believe it’s real. He also values the added flexibility of being more available for his family.


Below are insights Ruzga offers to emerging cottage food producers considering their own storefronts:

  • Do a lot of math (how many units do you have to sell to make a profit?).

  • Wait until you feel that you’ve outgrown a commercial kitchen.

  • Be aware of overhead costs including: rent, equipment, utilities, insurance, payroll/benefits, bookkeeping, POS system, internet, alarm system, taxes (federal, state, sales) and more.


Ilysse Rimalovski is a well-seasoned home chef, host and content developer living in Maplewood who spent years working in the specialty food industry. Have food questions or need inspiration? Visit Ilysse’s free Food Matters Zoom Room on Fridays from 12:15 p.m. - 1:15 p.m. Email forilysse@icloud.com for further details.


1 Comment


annemandell
Apr 29

Great article!

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