Nichol Wojcik is the Liam Neeson of her Sauk Rapids home kitchen: She has a very particular set of skills.
She registered her cottage food business, Pink Lady Macarons, just over a year ago. Wojcik started baking macarons for herself. She loved the cookies, but didn't know of many places to get them locally and didn't want to pay shipping fees to get them from bakeries farther afield.
"I can make 'em," she said she thought. "How hard can it be?"
(For those of you who know a little about making macarons, you'll know it's a little harder than this sentiment lets on.)
Before starting Pink Lady Macarons, she wasn't much of a baker, Wojcik said. But she dedicated her time to perfecting this one type of sandwich cookie and, meanwhile, a friend commented offhand that Wojcik could turn it into a cottage business. So she did.
Now, she spends about 10 hours a week baking macarons as a side hustle. She tries to do three different flavors every week, though she will bring back popular ones.
Wojcik said the compliments from people who eat her macarons make her want to keep baking them. There's also a certain level of satisfaction in conquering the skill.
"I got this cookie to do what I wanted to do and when," she said.
In the St. Cloud area — and across the state — she's far from alone. She's one of 178 cottage food producers in the surrounding area that have registered with the state as of mid-September.
What is a cottage food producer?
People who register as cottage food producers are actually registering for a licensing exemption, Minnesota Department of Agriculture retail food program manager for Food and Feed Safety Jeff Luedeman said. Essentially, cottage food producers accept some limits on what foods they are able to use and make in exchange for the leeway to make and sell food from home without state inspection.
The Cottage Food Law allows producers to "prepare and sell only non-potentially hazardous foods." Cottage food producers are preparing and selling baked goods, jams and jellies and pickled vegetables or fruits. As of August, they are also allowed to sell pet treats.
Cottage food producers have to complete training and must label their products as homemade and not subject to state inspection. They also have to deliver food directly to the consumer, which means all cottage food is local food. It can't be shipped.
Cottage food booms in Minnesota
The number of Minnesota cottage food producers has increased steadily over the last few years.
Each year since 2018, new registrants have made up more than a third of total cottage food producer registrations in the state, according to data provided by Luedeman and the MDA.
Here's a breakdown of cottage food producer registrations in the past few years statewide:
2018: 3,429 total registered, 1,351 new registrations (39%)
2019: 4,219 total, 1,472 new (35%)
2020: 4,860 registrants, 1,749 new (36%)
As of Sept. 17, 5,802 cottage food producers had registered with MDA, and of those, 2,023 were new 35%.
About 3% of the state's total cottage food producers are registered in the St. Cloud area — Stearns, Benton and Sherburne counties. As of mid-September, 178 cottage food businesses are registered in the St. Cloud area.
That includes Jack Kitchar, a Sauk Rapids resident who sells breads and pies under the name Jack's Apple Farm. He used to run an apple orchard — the produce source for his apple breads and apple pies — but no longer does.
However, he continues to work as a cottage food producer to supply his regular customers and fill custom orders. He said he gained many of his customers from when he was a vendor at the St. Cloud Area Farmers Market.
He said he likes that Minnesota's cottage food registrants are required to go through some training.
"It keeps the products pure and clean," he said.
His order load depends on the time of year; the popularity of pies picks up in the fall, while "in the summer I sell an awful lot of bread."
He keeps doing it because he loves it, Kitchar said. But he misses his partner in apple crime: daughter Jacqueline Kitchar, who died in 2020.
"She used to be my right-hand girl," he said.
He still lives — and bakes — by the motto he taught her: If you wouldn't eat it, why would you expect someone else to?
Let's talk money
The majority of Minnesota cottage food producers — about 95% — are Tier 1 producers, which means they have gross annual sales of $5,000 or less. Tier 2 cottage food producers make up the remainder, with about 5% of these cottage food producers hitting between $5,001 and $78,000 in annual sales.
In the St. Cloud area, the breakdown between Tier 1 and Tier 2 producers is similar; nine of the area's 178 cottage food producers are Tier 2 registrants, or about 5% of the total.
That $78,000 cap was another change instituted in August. It was a huge jump from the previous Tier 2 cap of $18,000. Luedeman said Tier 1 will also increase in the future, and the cap will be assessed and adjusted in January .
According to Luedeman, the Tier 2 cap was raised so producers could earn more.
April Schlichting, who started Songbird Kitchens in 2019, said she was happy the state increased the cap in a way that would allow cottage food work to be a full-time job, like it is for her. She's baking five days a week at her home near Rice, and it's a time-consuming pursuit.
"There is always something going on in my kitchen," she said.
Schlichting has worked in area restaurants and coffee shops for several years, creating specials and working as a prep cook and bakery manager. She has plans to one day go beyond the cottage food industry and baked goods in her culinary pursuits. The option to start as a cottage food producer and build from there has been good for her.
Schlichting said she started Songbird Kitchens as a cottage food business by simply "(pushing) myself out of the nest." She switches flavors monthly and does custom orders and events. Her standard fare includes macarons, specialty cookies, specialty brownies, cookie bars and mini cupcakes.
"I really love to play with flavor. I think that's my most favorite part about cooking in general and baking as well is to just really offer something that's maybe unique that you can't get everywhere," she said. "And then just make it a super enjoyable experience.... Whatever I make, it has to ... have high standards of flavor and texture and the whole experience to be really enjoyable."
Schlichting said she likes that Minnesota's cottage food laws are approachable — without a lot of red tape, fees and licensing headaches. And though the restrictions can feel limiting, she said, sometimes obstacles can push her to be more creative.
"I've had a very positive experience with it so far," she said.
Luedeman said the MDA does not track how many participants go on to open a commercial business, but they do hear anecdotes.
Others have done what Schlichting has planned, including Laura Wolfram, the baker behind Korppi Coffee + Bakeshop. The business, which she will run with co-owner and partner Kayla Adams, is set to open Sunday.
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This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: St. Cloud, Central Minnesota see higher number of cottage food producers