Howdy and happy springtime!
I’m super excited to introduce you to my friend, fellow vegan, baker, and someone who also is my guest blogger this month. Meet Robin Cole, the founder and owner of Life is Sweet Bakeshop out of Orange County, California. I met Robin last month at the Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim. As it turns out, Robin and I have many mutual friends (mostly vegheads) and share the same love of both sweets and a plant based diet. Robin is committed to creating sweet treats using unrefined flours and sweeteners; organic and local produce; non-hydrogenated oils; as well as fair trade chocolate and coffee. She makes custom cakes and cupcakes, some of her most popular flavors being Lavender Lemon, Salted Caramel, and Churro. Today Robin shares her expertise and experience creating a home-based food business. Even if you aren’t vegan or don’t have a vegan product, many of Robin’s suggestions apply to those wanting to start any type of business, even those non-food related. Thank you for your contribution and take it away Robin!
A few weeks ago, a friend asked me for some advice on starting a home-based food business. I really love getting this question! I feel like such an expert (even though I am far from being an expert) talking about my experience of starting my own business. I went on and on about Cottage Law, business licenses, and product liability insurance for a few minutes before I noticed the overwhelmed look on her face. I told her I would put some information together and send her an email. As I sat there writing it, I thought about how many mistakes I had made along the way when I started my business over two years ago. I re-registered my DBA THREE times (and paid three times) because I hadn’t figured out my business model beforehand. I took a business partner on a whim (who I actually learned a lot from, even though the partnership didn’t work out). I rented a kitchen space that had expired health permits (should have done my homework). Even though I did an entrepreneurship minor in college, I literally knew nothing about starting a business! However, through much trial and error, I think I have a thing or two figured out by now. So, I have put together a To-Do list to help the other aspiring vegan food entrepreneurs out there…
To-Do List for the Vegan Entrepreneur
1. Develop a quality product. Make stuff for your friends and family to try and ask for their honest feedback. I tested many, many (many, many, many) recipes before I settled on the ones that made it on my menu. And never stop testing recipes. There is always room for improvement.
2. Take a class. I’m not saying you need to go out and get a culinary degree or an MBA to start a food business, but I’m all for broadening your skill set. I took a 5-week cake decorating class when I was living in the Bay area that I learned a lot from. It was totally worth the 100 bucks! Universities and community colleges host weekend workshops and classes (some of which are actually free). The Small Business Administration is also a great resource – there is a feature on their website to search for events by zip code.
3. Network. I cannot stress this one enough! The vegan community is growing faster than ever and no matter where you live, there are other vegans who want to connect with you! And, if you are cooking or baking up some delicious vegan product, they want to try it! Go to vegan meet ups, join a Facebook group, get your name (and your business name) out there!
4. Write a business plan. This is another really important one that I totally underestimated. I never wrote one when I first started my biz. In fact, its still a work in progress. It doesn’t need to be long or extremely detailed, but it is so important to have one. And if you’re thinking about getting investors, they won’t even talk to you if you don’t have one. The SBA has a great tool on their website to walk you through the steps.
5. Figure out your business model. Are you going to take a partner? Do you have investors? Most small businesses (myself included) start out as a sole-proprietorship. Either way, make this decision before you register your DBA, or fictitious business name. Dba regulations differ from state to state, so depending on where you live, you’ll need to research what steps to take.
6. Open a business bank account. I know this may seem silly if you are not raking in the dough, but even if you only have $50 in the account, it will make it a lot easier down the road if you keep your business income and expenses separate from everything else (especially during tax time)…trust me!
7. Kitchen space. Obviously, very important. Finding commercial kitchen space can be a pain (and expensive), so I would encourage you to look into Cottage Food Laws in your state. The California Cottage Law passed in 2012 and went into effect on January 1, 2013. While the laws differ state to state, in a nutshell a cottage food law is a law that allows one to prepare certain types of food in their home kitchen and legally sell them to certain venues. If you live in one of the few states that does not currently have Cottage Food Laws – Connecticut, New Jersey, Kansas, Idaho, and Hawaii – then I encourage you to try to get a bill started. Cottage Food Laws make it much easier for small food businesses to really get on their feet and get their product out the public, without breaking the bank on kitchen rent.
8. Licenses & permits. Once you get your cottage law certification, find out what licenses and permits you need – there is a wide range of local, state and federal regulations that must be met depending on where you live. With Cottage Law, your home address will also be your business address, so make sure there are no zoning issues with where you live.
9. Get on social media! Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Yelp – use all of it! Since you don’t have a storefront, you’ll need to use these different online platforms to get your name out there, gain followers, and get customers. Plus, they are free! Utilize social media for as long as you can because eventually you will need a website… which costs money.
10. Take it one day at a time. I can think of many days that ended with me sitting on the kitchen floor, frosting in my hair, crying because I felt so overwhelmed. It was in these moments that I wanted to throw in the towel. You will experience these times too – its inevitable. But just remember, it will all be worth it in the end. Don’t give up!!
Hi, I’m Robin Cole, the founder and head baker of Life is Sweet Bakeshop. I’ve been vegan for just over five years and couldn’t imagine it any other way! I have degrees in Communication Studies and Journalism, but find true joy being in the kitchen making vegan deliciousness, so I started my bakery in late 2011. While Life is Sweet is still very small scale, I have big dreams of bringing vegan treats to the masses. I reside in Orange County, California with my fiance Stephen and rescue pup Roscoe.