Living in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks, Judy Fleischman wanted to help the community heal. Her approach: to bake and give away homemade vegan treats in lower Manhattan.
She considered making it a business when strangers began asking where to buy them, but she found it too pricey to rent commercial kitchen space, as would have been required under New York state law.
When she moved to Berkeley on New Year's Eve 2012, she was unaware that a new law that allowed sales of homemade food would take effect the next day -- and change her life.
"There's been an incredible momentum around homemade food" in the past year, Fleischman said. "It's really heartwarming that this is happening here."
Sales of her Loving Live Treats are good, and she is considering making production of the flax, sunflower and fruit energy cookies a full-time business.
On Jan. 1, 2013, California enacted the Homemade Food Act, which lets "cottage food" -- food prepared in home kitchens -- be offered for sale. About 1,000 new microbusinesses have taken root since.
Armed with just a food dehydrator and about $1,000 in permits, Fleischman was able to get started. However, local controls have created a crazy quilt of rules and fees, resulting in rules that work for some but erect hurdles for others.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, the bill's author, said there have been hiccups, but the law is doing what it was intended.
The bill began with a desperate call from a constituent who couldn't sell the wood-fired bread he made in his backyard. Working with Oakland's Sustainable Economies Law Center, Gatto crafted legislation to allow those sales of homemade products.
"We determined there were an awful lot of people who wanted to become small-business owners but couldn't because of the barriers," he said, noting the high cost of city business permits and commercial kitchen rentals.
With the bill's passage, only eight states and Washington, D.C., remain without a cottage food law.
Among this state's hopeful new entrepreneurs are Rula Sai, of San Jose, who mixes imported black tea, dried apricots and sunflower petals into an aromatic Armenian Plum Tea, and Concord chef Kevin Martino, who spices up his peanut clusters, douses them with dark chocolate and packages them with a "made in a home kitchen" label.
Blending backgrounds in cooking and sales, Martino has placed his walnut biscotti and spicy peanuts with several East Bay retailers. After $500 in permits, he pounded the pavement, shopped his samples around and began taking wholesale orders.
"It's given me a chance to be able to start my own business and cook from home without a commercial kitchen," he said.
Martino wants to expand, but he isn't sure how. Online sales are still a "gray area," Concord doesn't allow customers in his home, and the rules don't allow him to sell outside the county.
Sai has connected with the monthly Bay Area Homemade Market in Berkeley, which gives her a place to sell and sample, but she is frustrated by her San Jose experiences. She hosts tea parties, but the city only allows two in-home clients at a time. The hurdles make it difficult to build a customer base, she said.
After shelling out $500 for Chinese herbs and nearly $1,000 for required licenses, Sai discovered she couldn't sell online or at farmers markets -- as she'd been led to believe.
"It's very time-consuming," Sai said. "They put you in a circle, and you don't know how to get out of it."
Other chefs have balked at revenue limits -- the act allows only up to $45,000 in sales per year -- and a narrow list of acceptable foods. Counties and cities can set their own licensing fees as well, causing a disparity in startup costs.
Christina Oatfield, director of the law center working with Gatto, said most Bay Area programs are running "pretty smoothly," but some would-be chefs complain of high fees.
In Santa Clara County, Class A permits, which allow direct customer sales, are $219 per year. Class B permits, which allow sales through stores and retailers, are $635 and require a home inspection. Contra Costa County charges $95 for Class A and $238 for Class B. Alameda County's permit fees are $162 for Class A and $243 for Class B.
Heather Forshey, the director of Santa Clara County's consumer protection division, said fees are based on the cost of staff time.
"Staff spends a considerable amount of time with entrepreneurs who don't know what they want. ... We have become, in some ways, the liaison between producers and the state," she said.
The first year of the program went well in Contra Costa, said Marilyn Underwood, the county's environmental health director, but she thinks all the work the county does with startups may force it to raise fees.
Alameda County, which has the highest number of permits issued in the East Bay (96), gets high marks from the cottage food industry.
Ronald Browder, head of the county's environmental health agency, said his department has worked hard with startups.
"This is the first business opportunity for most people, so we want to make it easy for the applicants," he said. "It's taken more time than we thought, but it was worth it."
After one year, some restrictions already are easing. An amendment to the state law took effect Jan. 1 that allows intercounty sales if both counties agree.
And the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, with markets in Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties, just allows foods prepared in commercial kitchens, but it is considering a change.
"Change is sometimes slow to arrive," Gatto said. "The more people see these businesses pop up, hopefully word will spread, and some of these people who are hostile to it will get a comfort level at some point."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
Class A: 62 issued (cost: $162 each); Class A permits allow direct sales to customers only.
Class B: 34 issued (cost: $243 each); Class B permits allow indirect sales to local shops, sales through stores and retailers.
Contra Costa County
Class A: 38 issued (cost: $95)
Class B: 8 issued (cost: $238)
Santa Clara County
Class A: 44 issued (cost: $219)
Class B: 9 issued (cost: $635)