Saturday, March 17, 2012

Links and Advice for Home Confectioners and Bakers

This is in response to recent requests from people who have seen what I'm doing with Sweets by 5ftLatina and come to the misguided impression that I might actually know what I'm doing.  Well, maybe not all that misguided...I have learned a few things along the way, and I believe in sharing knowledge, so here goes:

I'll start with the disclaimer that you shouldn't substitute my advice for the advice of a lawyer, tax professional, business advisor, etc. or for your own common sense.  Also, be aware that I'm located in Phoenix, Maricopa County, Arizona, so a lot of the info I have may only apply there.  Or I may be completely wrong about all of this and none of the info I have is accurate and I just haven't figured that out yet because so far no one official has come knocking on my door!  Are you disclaimed enough yet?  Then read on.

This is the link to the Arizona Home Baked and Confectionery Goods Program.  This is your main resource if you want to produce baked goods or confections in your own kitchen and sell them within the state of Arizona.  Their customer service people are actually quite helpful if you email them to ask questions.  I don't know about over the phone, having never needed to call.  Registering for the program consists of filling out a very, very, very short form with your name, the address you'll be producing the goods out of, contact information, and answering the question "Do you have a Food Handler's Card?"  The certificate is generated during their office hours, and a PDF of it is emailed to you.  It's quick, it's painless, and it's free.

To participate in the program, you'll need a Food Handler's Card if your county requires it.  In Maricopa County it is required, and I took an online course that cost $9 and then paid $5 at the closest Environmental Services office for my snazzy Food Service Worker Card complete with picture.  This took me a day to do.  I could have gotten through the online course faster, but I'm kind of a nerd, so I spent some time looking up a few things online while taking the course, looking to see how what the course taught applied to working specifically with chocolate, for example.  Plus when I got done it was right around the time they go to lunch, so I had to wait until after 1pm to go down to the office and get my card.  And when I got there there were about 20 other people in the waiting area who had taken the paper test at the office and were waiting for their exams to be scored.  Still wasn't a horrid process and at the end of it I had my card, no waiting for it to be mailed.

The program requires that all the business ingredients be segregated from the household ingredients.  At my house this has amounted to us turning part of a downstairs closet into a second pantry that houses only the ingredients I use for Sweets.  In the refrigerator, I have a couple of shelves that are all mine, and they're near the top of the fridge to minimize worries about stuff from higher shelves falling onto my ingredients and contaminating them (the food safety course uses the example of raw meat dripping down onto something on a lower shelf...likely at my house?  No, but I keep my stuff near the top all the same).

Handwashing.  Ay, yi, yi.  Your hands are going to crack so badly they'll start to itch and throb at the mere thought of working in the kitchen.  At least mine did.  Moisturize early and often!

Gloves can probably be obtained at many places, but this is one of my favorites: Standard Restaurant Supply on McDowell near 32nd Street.  Go ahead.  Go in there with a list.  Standard Restaurant Supply mocks your list!  You need gloves, they've got 'em.  Sheet pans?  No problem.  A bleach solution bucket?  Of course.  How about an enormous ladle?  A giant whisk?  A stock pot big enough to fit a fully-grown human?  Well, no, you might not need any of that stuff, but for a second there, you wanted it, didn't you?  That's the power of Standard Restaurant Supply.  Sign up for an account with them (it's free) and they can check your account to find out what you've bought before, in case you're looking for more of that thing you bought last time that you can't find on the shelf today.

You can register your trade name with the Secretary of State's office.  Depending on your bank, you may need to do that before opening a business checking account.  You also want to do this if you're worried about someone else trying to do business under the supercool business name you came up with.  This page has the forms in PDF format.  You can mail the forms in or walk them into the closest office.  I mailed mine in early February, along with a check for $10.  I have no idea where the form or the check are now.  I gave up on waiting and walked the forms into the office.  There wasn't a long wait, and when I was done I had a receipt and a stamped form showing I was registered.  I received a pretty certificate in the mail a few weeks later.  What I didn't know is that this has the added side effect of increasing the rate of junk mail and sales calls from people trying to sell you a service to help you with your new business.  And because my business address is my home address and my business phone is my cell phone, that's now out there for the whole world to see.  Now, if you were paying attention to the Home Baked and Confectionary Goods Program list of labeling requirements listed on that website, you already know that your home address (since that's where you're producing your product) and contact info have to go on your labels, so you were already prepared for that information to be floating around in the universe when you decided to go into this business in the first place, right?  OK, well, consider that motivation to be doing well enough soon enough that you can move into a commercial kitchen at least part time and change your business address to a PO Box.

The wacky guys and gals over at the Arizona Department of Revenue are very much interested in the success of your business...and the Benjamins it will bring in for them.  As far as they're concerned, if you are selling anything, they want a portion of it in exchange for extending you the privilege of doing business in the state of Arizona.  Which is why they call it a "Transaction Privilege Tax" and not "sales tax."  The application can be filled out online, and this does get the process going, but it's not complete until they have $12 from you.  That covers the state of Arizona, but some cities also want a share of your sales.  If those cities are listed on the Arizona "Joint Tax Application" you can go ahead and pay the fee and add them to the license you'll be getting from the state.  Once again, you can mail in the check and the required signature card, but don't.  Go down to the office and pay it in person.  The people there are friendly and if you have a cute business name this will give you one more opportunity to have someone comment on how cute it is while they're making sure they spell it correctly on your form.  And who doesn't love that validation?  You'll also walk out with the actual license instead of having to wait for it to show up in the mail.  Later the same day you visit the lovely people at the DOR, they will email you a username and temporary password so that you can file your taxes online.  Yay?  I haven't been at this long enough to have filed yet, so I can't offer any feedback or advice regarding the online system.

If you intend to go to things like farmers markets, school fundraisers, arts and crafts fairs, and the like to sell your morsels of deliciousness, you may need a license for the city where the event is being held.  Or you may not.  Check with the event organizer and find out what their requirements are.  If they tell you that a city license or a city health permit is needed, don't panic.  Find the appropriate city office and call or email them, explaining what you're up to and they will, generally speaking, get back to you quickly and tell you exactly which forms you need to fill out (if any), how to submit them, and what the fees are.  With the cities, I find calling works better than emailing.  They'll have questions and you can get them all out of the way at once instead of sending emails back and forth all day.  A lot of the times, the events you're going to may not mention you needing any kind of tax license because they've already gone to the trouble of getting one that covers the whole event.  Some cities have told me that because an event had a permit and I wasn't physically located in their city, I could sell at the event without a license.  These are the kinds of things you find out by calling, rather than freaking out because the website makes it all sound too scary (I'm a highly intelligent person, but legalese creeps me out).

As far as the health permits, I have yet to find a city that gives me any grief once I tell them I'm registered with the Home Baked and Confectionery Goods Program.  They may still require a permit, you may still need to fill out a form, and they may still want a fee, but it will mean that all the very-definite-and-unyielding stuff they put on their sites about "no homemade food" doesn't apply to you.  And if it does, they'll tell you exactly how and what they want you to do about it.

Business insurance is going to be very important if you want to sell at the bigger farmers markets.  Many of them require you to have ONE MILLION DOLLARS (go ahead, do a Dr. Evil impression) of liability insurance that names them as additional insured.  I called 3 insurance companies and picked the one I eventually went with based on their responsiveness and speed of giving me a quote.  My insurance premium is $250 a year.  It's State Farm, if you really want to know, but there are plenty of other firms that you can get business insurance through, and their rates will probably be comparable.

My main source for finding places to sell my chocolates is Craigslist.  I actually have a Google alert set up that searches Craigslist for postings with the words "craft," "farmer," "fair," "artist," and "vendor" and sends me an email when they pop up.  The search also pulls a lot of non-applicable posts, but it does save me the time of going to Craigslist frequently and looking through all the listings.  I would also recommend, if you don't have any children of your own, asking your friends who have kids in school to keep you posted about vending opportunities at school fundraisers.

Other miscellaneous resources or lack thereof:

My husband handles my website.  He's a nerd and he's doing it for fun and so he can learn how to design websites.  I do my own photography (and hopefully that's not too painfully obvious) so all I have to say about that is if you're stuck doing the same, use a posterboard or something similar as a backdrop and/or under what you're photographing so at least you don't have to crop out random stuff behind your lovely cupcake or whatever.  I am fortunate to have a friend who did the graphic design on my logo and my labels and who also acts as my sounding board and business advisor.  And now that I know about tax deductions, I get to write off our Friday coffee dates, cause we always end up talking shop...score!

Seeing a theme?  You have friends.  Friends who like you.  Friends who will work for food, or coffee, or bragging rights, or just because they like you and want to see you succeed.  Don't be afraid to ask.

ABC Cake Decorating Supplies is on Indian School Road near 29th Street.  They will also destroy your shopping list.  They have stuff you didn't even know you wanted, but now you can't live without.  If possible, take a friend who isn't into baking with you so they can reel you in.  Fortify yourself with a hearty meal before you go.  Drink plenty of fluids.  ABC carries "a wide variety" (understatement!) of cake pans, decorations, molds for chocolates and other candies, tools for working with fondant, cookie cutters (which I have also used for chocolates), cake boxes, cupcake boxes, candy boxes, cellophane bags, poly bags, sucker sticks...even those push pop containers everyone's all excited about.  I'm leaving a lot of stuff out, I know.  Just go there and check it out.

If you are going to be doing something involving chocolate (or even if you just really, really like chocolate) check out and it's community of chocophiles who will offer you advice and opinions on all things chocolate.

That's pretty much everything.  Questions, opinions, and advice of your own are welcome!