The holidays are upon us and I have a confession to make. I love sweets! Any sweet, be it chocolate, pies, cakes or even a roasted winter squash drizzled with honey – I can’t resist them. This hit me hard as I was finalizing the articles for this issue. I realized that we seemed to be very sweet oriented. Ok, it is the winter and we are going into holiday mode but my personal yen cannot be the only reason for the unintended subject theme of the issue! Could it also be that all of the emails, press releases and samples that have arrived in our office are about baked goods?
Doing some research, asking friends in the local food arena and then speaking with my staff confirmed that the majority of new local food businesses are baking companies. But why?
Baking, whether it be sweets or savories is one of the easier points of entries into the food production business. The first reason is that these businesses can be started on a small scale out of one’s home. Many towns in Massachusetts will permit home kitchens. There are still regulations to follow but the expense to get set up properly is not onerous.
Selling baked goods is also easier than other highly perishable or fragile products. Farmers markets are the ideal start up venues. You want to get your product in front of people and, at a market, you can do so with a relatively small investment: a tent, table and some attractive signs and display racks. No need for refrigeration, electricity or ice packs. And you get first hand feedback on the product directly from the consumer!
Most start up baking companies have begun by going the home to farmers market route. What next? Online sales, maybe opening a retail store or, if you can raise the capital to build or rent your own production facility, you will go the wholesale route. The rate of success is still relatively low (despite many great products) but the financial loss usually is not huge.
Compare this to a company wanting to produce cheese or sausage. Neither product can be produced in one’s home as they are highly regulated by local and state health departments. In order to get the business up and producing requires a fairly large investment in equipment.
What does this all mean? I believe we are seeing fewer and fewer small food companies because of the financial risks necessary to get in the game. Investment money is hard to get for a category of business that has such a low success rate. Hence, a huge hurdle for someone who wants to make their food dream a reality.
It also means that despite the consumer’s passion and support of local businesses the scope of the businesses is shrinking. The vision that one day we might be able to go to a market and get only local products is diminishing.
How to change the trend? We need to be willing to pay what it really costs for a locally made sausage or slice of cheese. This would enable the producer to pay back the loans necessary to buy the equipment. We need to support local community kitchens and help open more throughout the state. Affordable space for startup businesses needs to be readily available. We need to encourage state and local governments, large socially conscious corporations and individuals to invest in the small food producer so that they can start up and continue to grow.
As the holidays are upon us, as we are buying gifts for friends and family, let’s pledge to include our local small businesses by buying their products and showing our support.
Ilene Bezahler Publisher/Editor