Maribeth Gandy and Smita Premkumar are friends, data analysts, and moms who enjoy hosting parties and cooking meals for others. One afternoon in January of 2020, as they were picking up their kids from an Atlanta elementary school, they decided to take their love of cooking to the next level.
“We had an idea to mix Maribeth’s Southern cuisine with my Indian roots to create something that could be easily sold and consumed at summer festivals,” said Premkumar. “We decided on savory handheld pastries, which we named Coffyn Pyes after the twelfth-century term for pastry.”
Gandy and Premkumar’s festival dreams were dashed that following March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced festivals to cancel and the world to shut down. Little did they know that the pandemic would present new possibilities for them and many other home-based food businesses around the country.
Cottage food laws allow the production and sale of low-risk products out of a home kitchen without inspection or licensing requirements. These laws are not new, but dozens of cities further eased home food production regulations over the past two years, according to Erica Smith Ewing, an expert on food freedom issues and a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice.
“The COVID-19 pandemic gave state legislators even more reason to expand these laws,” Ewing said. “With restaurants closing and labor shortages an ongoing issue, home cooking is a great way for people to make ends meet and provide a local food option to consumers.”
“I was a milling hobbyist,” explained Benjamin Holland, a Chicago resident who opened True Grain Artisan Milling in the spring of 2020, selling hand-milled flour to eager bakers. “When the pandemic halted my video production business, I started milling more flour and word spread fast.”
Grocery shortages meant Holland saw a spike in business. “As flour became scarce in stores, people messaged me about my supply,” he said. “Suddenly there was a line of customers outside my house.”
Benz and Justin Martin, who started a Thai food catering business in the Coachella Valley of California in 2019, began offering home-cooked meals for pickup and delivery in March 2020, to immediate fanfare. Orders were placed through the Foodnome app, which connects home cooks with hungry customers.
“We saw a real demand for our food, largely because people weren’t dining out at restaurants,” Benz Martin said. “Three days of food would sell out in minutes, which forced us to be flexible, especially when local supply shortages meant we had to visit five to six stores to get what we needed for the week.”
“After we realized we wouldn’t be selling our Coffyn Pyes at festivals in the foreseeable future, we went back to the kitchen and quickly came up with a plan to create a frozen product instead,” Premkumar said. “We launched our first home sale in July of 2020 and sold out of pies within two hours.”
“A local news website, Block Club Chicago, heard about my flour and reached out,” said Holland. “Once they published a story, the orders started pouring in from all over the city.”
As True Grain Milling became more popular, Holland sought out partnerships with local farms, suppliers and businesses in the Chicagoland area.
“I thought that arranging deals with farmers and local businesspeople would be difficult, but that was the easy part,” Holland said. “Everyone was unbelievably supportive, even to a tiny home-grown operation like mine. They just wanted to help another small business succeed.”
The Martins now prepare 60 meals out of their home’s kitchen every week for a loyal base of customers. The work is hard—Benz spends up to 14 hours at a time on her feet preparing the home-cooked meals—but it’s also incredibly rewarding for them both.
“Working from home and making a smaller quantity of meals allows me to prioritize freshness,” Benz Martin said. “Everything is made from scratch the same day and I know our customers appreciate that.”
“As the person who delivers the meals, I have formed relationships with many of our longtime clients,” said Justin Martin. “Those five-minute conversations one to two times a week add up, and suddenly I know and care about people’s families and lives.”
Gandy and Premkumar began operating Coffyn Pyes out of a licensed commercial kitchen with a handful of part-time employees. They still produce the frozen pies year-round, but have also been able to fulfill their dream of selling them at Atlanta’s summer festivals. According to Premkumar, community has enabled them to thrive through a changing landscape.
“We employ three piemakers and five to six people from within our community who work events on a rotational basis,” Premkumar said. “We’ve also befriended local chefs and business owners at the kitchen where we all rent space. Together, we share ideas and help one another out. We are surrounded by opportunities and support.”
Without that support, it can be difficult for a home cook business to thrive. Holland ultimately closed True Grain Artisan Milling after suffering injuries from a motorcycle accident that left him temporarily unable to walk.
“When you’re creating a product by yourself and you get injured, your main asset is gone,” said Holland. “Friends and neighbors pitched in as much as they could, but it became too difficult to continue without any capital or hired help.”
Holland’s entrepreneurial spirit has inspired his son William, who recently launched Play Pops, a fruit popsicle business, out of their home. While Holland is supportive of his son’s efforts, he’s less sure about the sustainability of the home cooking industry as a whole.
“I’m a huge fan of sourcing and shopping local, but I’m not sure the scrappy approach I took is the right way,” he said. “Real change isn’t created by lone wolves with hobby businesses. We need structures in place that can curate the products and get them into the hands of a larger, consistent customer base.”
For the Martins, the Foodnome app provides that structure, helping new customers find and try Benz’s seasonal meals. In doing so, it removes any potential stigma surrounding the practice.
“People can be skeptical of trying a meal cooked out of someone’s home,” Justin Martin said. “It helps to be able to read reviews from other users or use a coupon for their first meal.”
Gandy and Premkumar have plans to continue expanding Coffyn Pyes while maintaining the local touch that makes them unique.
“When you buy a product that is homemade, the person making it is likely pouring their heart and soul into every piece of it,” Premkumar said. “It’s a joy to make these pies, and even better to know that people are enjoying them.”
According to Ewing, the home-cooked meal business is here to stay.
“Our team has helped expand over 20 cottage food laws in the past two years, and I expect even more expansion to come,” she said. “People in all industries are working from home because it’s more convenient and economical. Home kitchen businesses are no different.”