MD Home Baking Laws with Mulberry Treats

On The DMV Wedding Pros Podcast this week, I got to chat with Kim from Mulberry Treats.

On this episode, we talk about the home baking laws in Maryland - where they've been, where they're going - and how Kim has been a large part of that. We also talk about finding a cookie decorator, what kind of expectations there are when ordering in bulk, and giving back through charity work.

Thank you so much for joining us, Kim! Tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Thanks, Abigail. I'm a stay at home mom, and I've been decorating cookies since 2014. I got started decorating for my kids' birthday parties, and once you start you get cookie goggles and everything you see you want to turn into cookies, so it transitioned from there. I started out decorating cookies when we lived in California, and we moved to Maryland in 2015. I thought, "Oh, when my youngest goes to Kindergarten, I'll start selling cookies." I realized quickly after we moved here that Maryland had some of the strictest baking laws in the country, so it wasn't going to be a possibility.

When I moved here, the only place that cookie decorators could sell legally was at farmer's markets, which didn't work for me as a stay at home mom with young kids, to spend my weekends at the farmer's market.

Today we're going to talk about those home baking laws. I'm excited to have you because I know nothing about this subject, so I'm leaving the knowledge up to you! We're going to talk about home baking laws, what's new and what's next, as well as just some general cookie decorating things, so where do you want to start?

Disclaimer - I am not a lawyer, so please do not take this as legal advice as far as home baking laws go, but I'll go over a lot of the changes we've had over the past few years. You'll also hear them referred to as "cottage food laws," which is the same thing.

The laws here are some of the strictest in the country. At the time I moved here, if my neighbor wanted me to decorate some birthday cookies for their child, I would have to have a booth at a farmer's market, meet them there, and conduct the transaction there. There's a non-profit law firm called The Institute For Justice who have been working around the country to help improve home baking laws, like in Kentucky, New Jersey, and Michigan. A lot of changes have happened over the past few years to get more lenient cottage food laws. I had come across their name, and had some cookie friends fighting in KY to get the food laws changes, so I sent an email and said, "I'm in MD, I would love to help get the laws changed."

They replied rather quickly and said, "Hey, guess what? We just found a co-sponsor for a bill that we want to pass through." This was in 2018. I went to the public hearings that we had on it, I emailed all of my representatives here in Maryland, my state delegates and state senator, and tried to put the word out to as many cookie decorators as I could. That was a really interesting process to witness. I got to go to all the public hearings and hear home bakers testify about what this would mean to them personally. It was a really great experience. If you've never seen how a bill becomes a law, it's really fascinating.

It was well received to all the committees, and I think all the committee members decided to co-sign the bill. It's a bipartisan issue, everyone can get onboard with this. What the law in 2018 changed was allowing home bakers to sell goods from home, not just from a farmer's market. So it allowed us to sell from home, farmer's markets, public events, and by mail within in the state of Maryland. There's a lot more things that we wanted to get at that time, but it was baby steps. Lifting that farmer's market restriction was huge.

Over the past couple years at least on the cookies decorating front, you've seen lots of cookie decorators pop up. What I think is great in the changes of these home baking laws is that there's a new market for wedding professionals and couples to tap into. If you wanted special custom decorated cookies, you can get that now! It's exciting because cookies can really provide a special detail. It's a nice individual gift that you don't have to share, so people really like cookies.

That's so interesting. Like I said, I had no idea that that was even.... that there were so many hoops to jump through. But it's so cool that you were a part of that process, and got to see it become what it is now. Are there other laws or restrictions that you see changing in the future?

So in October of 2019 we got another law passed where home bakers can now sell in food retail stores and in co-ops. They have to be food retail, so you couldn't sell to caterers, but it's still another baby step. Some of the things that a lot of home bakers would love to see changed is some of the restrictions on the food types. For now, frostings made with butter or fruit fillings are not allowed under the home baking laws. They have to be done in a commercial kitchen. You can submit some of your buttercream icings and stuff to get tested, but generally they have to be done in a commercial kitchen.

Another issue we want to see changed is for the labeling we're currently required to provide our home address. You have to put a lot of information on there, including your home address, which is concerning for a few reasons. One, just your personal security. There was a case out of Ohio where a cookie pickup order was used as a ruse to gain entrance into the cookie decorator's home, so that really sent ripples of fear through the cookie decorating community.

We have HB1017 that was thwarted by Covid in its last session, but that will hopefully get passed and allow for an alternate ID to be put on your home baked goods. You would register with the Department of Health and they would know your home address, but on your label you would just have to put this ID number so if there was ever a problem or concern then your customers would have a way to lodge a complaint.

We have a lot of people in this area in particular with government jobs and security clearances, plus law enforcement, domestic violence victims who don't want their addresses publicized like that. And some people don't care, but there are a lot of people who do have that concern.

For sure. That's something I never would have thought of. That's so wild to me that that information has to be out there.

Yeah, and I get it from a public health standpoint. Like if I were to buy something, I would want to have some means to remedy a situation if something spoiled or someone got sick. But also, you know, there's not really any other industry I can think of that forces you to put your home address on your goods. Hopefully the next session will get that passed.

One other thing that we're trying to do is get the income caps lifted. Right now home bakers are limited to a max of $25,000 income cap. You see that in lots of states, although most of them have, or are in the process of getting them lifted. No one wants to be told they have an income limit. If you can make over $25,000 as a home baker, I say more power to you! That's just my opinion.

That is honestly infuriating to me. As a small business owner, I've finally found a way to make money and they're like, "No. I'm so sorry. There's a limit." That's crazy to me!

People will tell me all the time, "You should sell your cookies!" And especially before the laws got changed, people just have no idea. Unless you're a home baker or in the baking industry, you don't know much about it. Home baking is important in terms of entrepreneurship and small business. Charm City Cakes out of Baltimore - he started out as a home baker, and he's one of the most famous bakers in the country. Being a home baker, building that client base and word of mouth helps you get to a point where if someday, if that's what you want to do, you can open a brick and mortar shop, hire employees, and expand in that way. So to see home baking laws restricted so much around the country is disheartening, but to see so many changes over the last three or four years... so many states have expanded their cottage baking laws. There's been a realization that this is a good thing, it promotes entrepreneurship, and entrepreneurship in lots of previously disadvantaged communities. You don't need a lot of overhead because you're working out of your home, and you can start a business and have a platform to expand if you want to.

Before we move on from business to practical ordering and risk factors, is there any other thing that you want to touch on when it comes to the laws?

I think just to raise public awareness of home baking laws and the restrictions that there are. Support your local home baker!

Awesome. From there, I think there's still some mystery around cookie decorating, so what kind of suggestions do you have when it comes to ordering them, and what pricing structure looks like?

Okay. So if you want to order cookies for a client's wedding or a special event, there's a couple things to know. Home bakers can't sell to caterers, which is the traditional place you're going to get most of your food items for a wedding or a big event. Some caterers can provide cookies, like I know Sugar Butter Love in Crofton is a cookie decorating business and a caterer, but generally the highly detailed custom cookies you probably aren't going to be able to get from your average caterer. You'll have to search outside of this normal arena for cookie decorators.

You can always use Google. Most cookie decorators have social media, their own website, and they'll be registered with Google so when you type it in something will come up. Another way you can find them is just through networking. I'm involved with Tuesdays Together here in Annapolis and have found other decorators through them. Also doing things like styled shoots, which I know you're a big fan of. That's another way of meeting different vendors. Here in Maryland it's going to be a lot of word of mouth. You can also follow hashtags like #marylandweddings or #marylandhomebakers to find them in your area.

If people are inquiring with a home baker for a big cookie order, what are some expectations they should be aware of?

It's a lot different than ordering from your grocery store bakery. My first piece of advice would be book early. Most cookie decorators will have an established minimum of two weeks notice, but especially in this area with a small market but a lot of demand, you'd be lucky to get a cookie order in with two weeks notice. But always try, there's cancellations and things like that. So definitely book early, especially for weddings. I would book at least three months out, and probably even more, for a big event like a wedding.

Another thing that might be different for couples hiring a cookie decorator for their wedding: when you go to a caterer you have a whole special day of sampling. You do that with cake decorators as well, but for cookies it's going to be different. Most cottage bakers aren't going to be able to do a mock up for you. If you're doing a big dinosaur order one week with browns and greens, and then a bride wants a sample with blush pink, you'll have to mix up all that icing and it messes with your workflow to do one cookie in a color that's different from what you're working on. My suggestion would be to reach out to your cookie decorator because you want to know what these cookies taste like. You want them to look pretty, and you want them to taste delicious. Cookies are very subjective. Some people use almond flavoring in their cookies, which I call the cilantro of the baking world - some people love it and some people can't stand it. If you're one of those people and you don't know you have this aversion to almond flavoring, you'll want to know that. So my suggestion is to reach out to that cookie decorator and see if they're having any pop-up sales, a bridal event, or any holiday specials. That way you can order cookies for under $10, you get to sample the cookies, see what they taste like, and feel more confident moving forward with your order. And you're supporting a small business, which is a good thing. That way you're not stuck paying for all those cookies - because most cookie decorators will have a one dozen or two dozen minimum order.

I know you can't speak for all bakers, but for a dozen cookies what would one expect to pay for the artistry that is cookie decoration?

It does vary by region. If you're closer to a metro area, just like everything else it'll be more expensive. If you're in a more rural area where the cost of living is lower it may be cheaper. In this area around Annapolis, a basic set of a dozen cookies would be around $50/dozen. That price does go up the more intricate you want them. Any handwriting, logos, metallics - those are costly for the baker, so that'll be reflected in the cost. If you're working within a budget, let the decorator know that up front. They can make some suggestions. If you can't afford a single intricate design for every wedding guest, maybe you can do a platter.

When I take my own cookies to an event or party in the neighborhood, I call them "party bites." You'll find at events people don't like to eat a lot of food. You won't see a lady in a nice dress chowing down on a huge cookie. But people will take "party bites." Mini cookies where they can take one or two bites and enjoy it.

So there are many ways to get around the budget, and I would suggest talking to your cookie decorator. $50/dozen does put off a lot of people. It is a specialty item, it is expensive. I hear a lot in the cookie community the criticisms that cookie decorators get. They say, "Oh that's so expensive, it's only flour, eggs, and butter." I get that, but one thing to consider is that it's not a drop cookie. I could make a bunch of drop cookies and sell them for a dollar a piece and be happy with that, but you're paying for the artistry. You're paying for the decorator's skill. There's a lot of time involved, letting each layer dry. Don't even get me starting on mixing the colors. For me it's an hour minimum to mix colors, and the time does add up, especially if the colors are custom matched. Those are just things to consider when you hear the price. I know it's shocking to a lot of people, but you're paying for something that's totally custom. We're not Amazon or Walmart. There's no way to mass produce them.

And when you're thinking about the cost for that, if you break it down per hour I'm sure it's not even what a decorator is worth. The time that goes into that is just crazy. Like you said, it's a specialty item and people need to keep that in mind when buying something like this.

I agree, and thank you for recognizing that. I know a lot of cookie decorators, for things like weddings where you may have 300 guests, will get asked, "Do you do a bulk discount?" I would say generally most decorators either won't, or the discount is very minimal. It's not because they're being stingy, it's that every single cookie needs to be outline, flooded, etc. You might save a little bit of time in mixing a giant batch of icing, but generally there's not many ways to save time. There's no way to mechanize that. So don't be surprised if they aren't able to give you a discount.

That's a really good point. It makes sense for a place that has the resources already available or easily accessible to have a bulk discount, but for something like this when you're still spending all that time on each individual item it just doesn't work.

Are there any other considerations people need to think about when booking a home baker rather than a bigger commercial kitchen?

Yeah, there are a few. Every cookie decorator is a little bit different, but I would expect to pay half down and half upon receipt, which is pretty common in the industry.

One thing I know is a big concern for people, especially for big events, is cancellations. For most home bakers, it's a one person show. Things come up - kids get sick, we have a global pandemic... things happen. Check your contract with your decorator and make sure you understand what the policies are. If someone's got norovirus, you don't want them making food for your wedding and potentially spreading it to your guests. A lot of decorators will have agreements with other cookie decorators where in an emergency situation they can take the order for them. That's one thing to ask.

You could get the cookies get delivered a few weeks before the wedding and freeze them. They're gonna be perfectly fine, taste just fine, but that would allow wiggle room in case something comes up. There was a hurricane that came through late last year, so there was a lot of decorators in TX and LA who had to cancel orders. Those kind of things do come up. You may have to be satisfied with just a refund. I don't want to scare anyone - I know a ton of decorators all over the country and I know of two situations in six years where they needed to cancel orders. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Every decorator has a refund policy if they're unable to make your cookies, but if cookies are really important to you then get them delivered two weeks before, and ask your decorator what their policy is if they get sick.

That's awesome advice. It's great that this is one of those services that you can do ahead of time, and I think that's valuable knowledge for people to know what they're getting themselves into. Even payments being 50% down and 50% during or just before the event is standard in the wedding industry. And it's the same thing for photographers and videographers - if we were to get sick last minute and couldn't be at the event, we all have in our contracts what the procedure would be for a replacement, etc. It's good that people realize that this is no different. It's still one persona taking on all of the work. It's great that people know that. And like you said, it's very rare, and we hope that it doesn't happen, but we have to have plans in place to make sure that our customers are getting the best they possibly can, and to protect everybody.

One final consideration would be how to make sure you're getting what you expect. Certainly ordering from a pre-sale or pop-up will allow you to taste the cookie and make sure it's something that you like. It's not just vanilla, people are making a lot of different custom flavors.

In terms of decorating, espec