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Home-based food business on the menu? Restrictions have been eased amid pandemic

'Don’t be afraid of the health unit. Reach out to them. Ask them questions. They will guide you,' says Oro-Medonte maple syrup producer
Hutchinson Maple Syrup
Hutchinson Maple Syrup – locally made maple syrup. Supplied photo

So you want to start a home bakery or confectionery shop? Or maybe you want to sell tea or preserves?

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit has seen an uptick in inquiries related to home-based entrepreneurs opting to get into the cooking and baking business. Last month, the province announced it would be making it easier for these types of businesses to get off the ground.

“We started off doing it as a hobby, and it’s just kind of grown and grown.” said Michele O’Sullivan, co-owner of Hutchinson Maple Syrup in Oro-Medonte Township.

O’Sullivan and her husband, Doug Hutchinson, have run a maple farm on Line 5 for about 10 years. Hutchinson and his father used to work with maple when he was a child, so when an opportunity came up for him to buy a maple farm as an adult, he jumped at the chance.

O’Sullivan has a food handler's certificate, and cites cleanliness as being of the utmost importance when running a home-based food business.

“The certificate is really important. It really does teach you a lot. We’re extra careful in everything we do with sanitizing,” said O’Sullivan.

While she says the farm has not been inspected by the health unit, she says she has worked closely with them over the years.

For people contemplating starting a home-based food business, O’Sullivan has some advice.

“Don’t be afraid of the health unit. Reach out to them. Ask them questions. They will guide you,” she said. “I was a little bit nervous when I was getting our first certificate to go to a festival. They just guided us right along. It was great. We’ve never had an issue.”

O’Sullivan says COVID-19 did impact the maple syrup business last year as their season starts in the spring.

“It was lonely out here. We didn’t have families out or the kids, and we didn’t go to any of our major festivals,” she said. “We redirected to porch pick-up and deliveries. My husband was worried we were going to have too much syrup left, but I’m happy to say we sold out this year before Christmas.

“We’ve reached a whole new level of customers this year,” O'Sullivan added.

In January, the province amended how it characterizes certain low-risk foods as not requiring such stringent food preparation rules be followed, as they are considered non-hazardous and do not require refrigeration. They include items such as baked goods, pickles, jams and preserves, chocolates, hard candies and brittles, fudge and toffees, granola, trail mix, nuts and seeds, and coffee beans and tea leaves.

Home-based food businesses that prepare only low-risk foods are now exempt from certain regulatory requirements, such as specified hand-washing stations in food premises, compliance with commercial dish-washing requirements and food-handling training certification.

All food premises, including home-based food businesses, must still adhere to requirements under the Health Protection and Promotion Act (HPPA) and the Food Premises Regulation, as well as periodic inspections by their local public health unit.

"For many local entrepreneurs, they start with a love of food and a cherished family recipe, whether it's grandma's apple pie or that new take on homegrown pickles, jams and preserves, and try and turn their passion into a successful business," said Prabmeet Sarkaria, Associate Minister of Small Business and Red Tape Reduction with the province.

"Our government applauds them for their vision and effort and we are doing everything we can to help them seize new opportunities without compromising Ontario's high standards for food safety," Sarkaria added. 

Amanda Kasserman owns the Barrie-based business Moonbeam Vegan Bakery. She started the business in late 2019, right before COVID-19 hit.

Kasserman opted to open the business as she struggles to find baked-good options that are in line with her own vegan and gluten-free diet, and saw an opening in the market for such sweet treats.

“I know there’s a lot of other people who are lactose intolerant or are vegan themselves. I wanted to try to give people more options,” she said. “I have loved the process so far. I’m still experimenting and am doing new things all the time. I enjoy it so much.”

Right off the bat, Kasserman opted to start her business using a shared commercial kitchen space out of OfficeInc! in Barrie, as she found the rules and restrictions for operating such a business in her own home to be impossible due to her own circumstances.

“I found it would be a challenge for me to do that properly. For one, I have cats. Any kind of pets aren’t really allowed unless they’re blocked off from the kitchen area. You also need proper lighting, flooring... there are so many things,” said Kasserman.

“The commercial kitchen seemed more reasonable because they have everything already set up,” she added.

Throughout the pandemic, Kasserman says her business hasn’t been particularly impacted, since it was always intended to be a delivery/pick-up based business and she says there’s a good market locally for her product.

“People were still having birthdays and celebrations, just on a smaller scale,” she said. “Customers were also saying they wanted to support small businesses and they were glad they found me.”

This week, for Valentine’s Day, Kasserman has 18 orders booked on top of other orders for birthdays and events.

For potential home-based business owners who are looking to get something off the ground, Kasserman also has some advice.

“Know who you want to cater to, first of all. I did a lot of research in 2019 before starting up. I think it’s important to know who your customer is,” she said.

For more information on the province’s January announcement which loosened restrictions for home-based food businesses, click here.

For more information from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit on being a food operator, click here.