Mar 3, 2024 - News

How cottage food laws shape Minnesota's small-batch hot sauce scene

The label of a bottle of hot sauce held close to the camera. The text reads 'Made in Minneapolis, Minnesota; we are a registered cottage food producer.' Other bottles of hot sauce are arranged in the background.

The label of Eric Semborski's hot sauce, produced under Minnesota's cottage foods law. Photo: Kyle Stokes/Axios

A relatively new Minnesota law has created a legal way for a growing community of small-batch hot sauce makers to turn their hobby into small businesses.

The big picture: The state's 2015 cottage food law replaced outdated statutes that made it really hard to legally sell most homemade food. It has since helped more than 8,900 small, homemade-food businesses get legit.

Zoom in: Eric Semborski has turned his love of gardening, cooking and a home-brew setup in his south Minneapolis house into a cottage food enterprise, Sembo's Sauce.

  • It's a full-blown side hustle for Semborski, who works in transportation logistics at Best Buy. He started by sharing his sauces with family and friends, gathering feedback and "pretending to be a little business."
  • "And now this year," he says, "I kind of am a little business." Last fall, he made around 2,000 bottles of hot sauce in 12 flavors — and officially registered as a cottage food producer.
A white man with a brown beard in a burnt-orange quarter-zip shirt and brown hat poses before an array of hot sauce bottles all bearing a logo reading "Sembo's Sauce."
Eric Semborski and his Sembo's Sauce, the hot sauce he makes in a dozen flavors and sells under Minnesota's cottage foods law. Photo: Kyle Stokes/Axiosbar

How it works: In exchange for registering and passing an online food-safety course, Minnesota law allows people to sell "shelf-stable" foods.

  • They can only sell person-to-person, either out of their home or at an event like a farmers market. Online sales are allowed, but third-party delivery is not (except for certain dog treats, of all things).

What they're saying: Making hot sauce is "definitely more of a labor of love than a true money maker" for Cali Torell, whose Saint City Chili is rooted in a bumper crop of ghost peppers five years ago.

  • Both Torell's and Semborski's free registrations allow for $7,665 in annual gross sales. Registrants who pay a fee and pass a food-handling course can sell more — up to $78,000 each year under a 2021 update to the law.

Fun fact: Torell, who works full time in public relations, named Saint City's first sauce in honor of her late cat.

  • But she named it Gigi's Ghost before the elderly cat died.

The spicy intrigue: Jennifer Carriveau of the Minnesota Cottage Food Producers Association said the 2015 law is intended as a steppingstone to a fully licensed food business — but that's still a big leap since commercial kitchen space isn't cheap.

  • Carriveau's association is pushing for a new law allowing state inspectors to license a home kitchen. That could help open the door for cottage food makers to get licensed to sell in a retail setting, she said.

The bottom line: Advocates suspect the law has helped grow — or at least add legal legitimacy — to Minnesota's small-batch hot sauce scene.

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