Starting a Home-Based Food Business in California

Before you start a home-based food business in California, learn about cottage food laws, permit requirements, and other legal issues.

By , J.D.

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Before you start a home-based food business in California, you need to consider some basic legal issues. For example, you must know which foods you are allowed to prepare in your home kitchen under California's cottage food law, choose a business structure, apply for permits and licenses, learn about food safety, and obtain insurance. If you want to hire an employee, you need to know the rules about that, too.

This article will get you started. To learn more about running a home-based business, see Nolo's section on Your Home Business.

What Food Can You Sell From Home in California?

In California, you may register your home kitchen to make the following food products for sale:

  • baked goods without custard, cream, or meat fillings (including breads, biscuits, churros, cookies, pastries, and tortillas)
  • dry baking mixes
  • candy, such as toffee or nut brittle
  • dried fruit
  • chocolate-covered nonperishable foods, such as nuts and dried fruit
  • fruit pies, fruit empanadas, and fruit tamales
  • granola, cereals, and trail mixes
  • herb blends and dried mole paste
  • honey and sweet sorghum syrup
  • jams, jellies, preserves, and fruit butter that comply with the standard described in Part 150 of Title 21 of the Code of Federal Regulations
  • nut mixes and nut butters
  • dried pasta
  • popcorn
  • vinegar and mustard
  • roasted coffee and dried tea, and
  • waffle cones and pizzelles.

You can find this list and more information about the foods you can legally prepare in a home kitchen by visiting the website of the California Department of Public Health.

Choosing a Business Structure for Your CA Home Food Business

Many home-based food businesses are intended to be small. California restricts cottage food businesses to an individual operator with no more than one full-time employee. The state also limits the amount of money a home-based food business can earn each year. In 2022, the limit for gross annual revenue is $75,000 for Class A operations, and $150,000 for Class B operations. (California Health and Safety Code § 113758 (2022).)

If your business is very small, running it as a sole proprietorship may be the only economically viable option. Keep in mind, however, that as a sole proprietor, you are personally responsible for every aspect of the business – from paying taxes to absorbing the risks of a lawsuit if your food products cause illness or injury to a customer. If you operate as a sole proprietor, you should purchase liability insurance to protect your personal assets (see below).

If you can afford it, consider choosing a business entity that protects you from personal liability, such as a California limited liability company or corporation. These business structures ensure that your food business, not you personally, would be responsible for any damage if someone were sickened or otherwise harmed by your product.

For more information, see Choose Your Business Structure.

Licenses & Permits for Home-Based Food Businesses in CA

You must get a permit from the county health department to operate a home-based food business in California. You can choose from two types of permits, depending on whether you want to sell products directly to customers or through other local businesses like shops or restaurants.

Class A permit. You can get a Class A permit in California if you want to sell only directly to customers within the state of California. With a Class A permit, you can sell at farmers' markets, festivals, from your home, or in other ways that allow individuals to purchase products directly from you. To get a Class A permit, you must complete a self-certification checklist, but there will be no physical inspection of your kitchen.

Class B permit. You need a Class B permit if you want to sell indirectly to customers – for example, through stores, restaurants, or other venues that will sell your products for you. In California, you may not sell indirectly outside of your own county, unless the county where you want to sell has specifically stated that they will allow indirect sales of cottage food products. To get a Class B permit, your kitchen must pass an annual physical inspection.

(California Health and Safety Code § 113758 (2022).)

Required information. When you apply for a Class A or Class B permit, you will be asked to provide information such as the following:

  • ingredients or recipes for all of your products
  • a list of sources for your ingredients
  • copies of labels for each product
  • a description of your packaging
  • a floor plan of your kitchen
  • a list of your equipment, utensils, and food contact surfaces, and
  • a certificate showing you have completed a food processor course approved by the California Department of Public Health.

You must also obtain the licenses and permits required of all businesses, such as a local business license and – if your business uses a name other than your own – a fictitious business name registration.

Get a California Food Handler's License

To operate a home-based food business in California, you must complete a California Department of Public Health food processor course within three months of obtaining your cottage food permit. After you complete the course, hold onto the food handler card or certificate as proof that you completed the training.

In addition, before you are permitted to sell food from home, your business must comply with extensive health and safety rules, including the following:

  • You may not conduct domestic activities in your home kitchen – such as family meal preparation, dishwashing, clothes washing, or entertaining guests – while you are preparing cottage foods.
  • No infants, small children, or pets may be in the kitchen while you are preparing cottage foods.
  • All kitchen equipment and utensils used to prepare cottage food must be kept clean and in good repair.
  • All food contact surfaces and equipment must be washed, rinsed, and sanitized before each use.
  • All food preparation and storage areas must be free of rodents and insects.
  • No smoking is allowed in the kitchen during the preparation or processing of cottage foods.
  • No person with a contagious illness may participate in the preparation or packaging of cottage foods.
  • Hands must be properly washed before food preparation or packaging.
  • Water used to prepare cottage foods must be potable. This includes water used for washing hands and equipment as well as water used as an ingredient.

For detailed rules and regulations, see California Health & Safety Code § § 114365 (2022) and 114365.2 (2022).

California Home Food Business Insurance

There are unique risks associated with food businesses, from food-borne illnesses to foreign objects like glass or plastic in food. These are added to typical business hazards such as fire, theft, or an employee who slips and falls on the job. Don't assume that your homeowners' or renters' insurance policy will cover your home business operations; it probably won't. You must carefully evaluate your existing policies and then contact a qualified insurance agent to purchase the additional insurance you'll need.

To find a good insurance agent, ask other food-business owners for recommendations. Look for an agent who has experience writing policies for food businesses and make sure all major risks are covered. General commercial liability insurance should cover everything from an employee burned by boiling water to a customer who gets sick from eating your food.

If you use a car or truck for deliveries or other business travel, be sure it is also properly insured.

Hiring Employees for Your California Home Food Business

In California, other members of your household or your immediate family members may help you with your cottage food business. Beyond that, the law allows you to hire only one full-time employee. (California Health and Safety Code § 113758 (2022).)

If you decide to hire an employee, you should learn about basic employment law issues such as hiring rules, how to avoid discrimination in California, and how to handle money matters like California state business income taxes and workers' compensation.

For more information, see Nolo's Human Resources Law Center.

The Homemade Food Operations Act

In 2018, California passed the Homemade Food Operations Act, which expands on the cottage food law and legalizes "microenterprise home kitchen operations." The law allows individuals to essentially operate a restaurant out of a private home, but there are a number of restrictions, including:

  • no more than one employee (not including family or household members)
  • you must prepare, cook, and serve the food on the same day
  • no raw milk products or oysters
  • no more than 30 meals per day
  • no more than $50,000 in gross annual sales
  • you can only sell directly to consumers, and not to retailers or wholesalers
  • you must follow health and sanitation standards, and
  • you must register in the kitchen in your county and pass inspection.

It's up to individual counties to opt into the program, so you'll need to check with your county government agencies to see if it's available.

Next Steps for Your Business

The laws surrounding home-based food businesses are continuing to evolve, especially at the county level. You should check the most current regulations before you sell products to the public. Often, the best source of information will be your city or county licensing offices.

As your business grows, you might decide to open a traditional restaurant, which is more regulated. Be sure to research the licensing and permitting requirements for restaurants before you move forward.

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