When you pick up a just-baked loaf from Upper Crust Bread in St. Louis, it feels like you’re grabbing a treat from an especially talented friend. Although for years Jeffrey Moll has been best known as the lauded mixologist behind the bar programs at Planter’s House and the now-shuttered Randolfi’s, he recently added a new title to his résumé: cottage baker. Upper Crust takes online orders early in the week; pickup is Saturday afternoon at Moll’s apartment in South St. Louis. Text him when you’re there, and he’ll appear in his driveway, masked up, toting a bag of bread scorched from the oven and wrapped in parchment paper.
“I started making bread a couple years ago,” says Moll. “People at Planter’s House have been telling me to start selling it for a while, [saying] ‘You’re getting really good at this.’ It was kind of the perfect storm; finally it just came to a head [during the pandemic], like, let me see if it’ll work. I’ll give it a shot.”
Moll launched Upper Crust Bread in early 2021, offering naturally leavened sourdough loaves that are baked in his apartment once a week. He has classic options such as country loaf, Turkey wheat and focaccia, plus specialty flour loaves, including buckwheat, sesame-semolina and rye with caraway. Most intriguing, however, are the more unusual loaves such as paprika-rosemary, turmeric-poppy seed and walnut-black sesame. You’ll also find compound butter, sauerkraut and Japanese-style milk bread on the menu.
“It’s actually starting to get away from me a little bit, which may be a good problem,” he says with a laugh. “All in all, it’s been pretty good and a lot of fun – a lot of lost sleep, but it’s very rewarding.”
Moll was able to start Upper Crust thanks to Missouri’s cottage food law, which went into effect on August 28, 2014, giving home bakers a new path to entrepreneurship. Missouri Senate Bill 525 specifies that Missourians can sell baked goods that are made in their residence – as opposed to a commercial kitchen – directly to consumers. Many states have similar laws, though Missouri does have a few very specific restrictions on the practice: Baked goods are defined as “cookies, cakes, breads, Danish, donuts, pastries, pies and other items that are prepared by baking the item in an oven,” with an additional stipulation for “canned jam or jelly” and “dried herb or herb mix.”
Although the cottage industry has been on the rise for years, the pandemic has led to a renewed interest in the business model. With countless chefs and bakers furloughed from full-time restaurant jobs and others stuck at home during quarantine, many turned to a favorite pastime: baking. The cottage model allows these home bakers to turn a profit from their sweet treats, albeit with a few other constraints.
Cottage businesses must sell directly to consumers for delivery or pickup, or at outlets such as a farmers’ market, and annual gross income must not exceed $50,000. Sales in restaurants, grocery stores and online are strictly prohibited, though customers can place an order online or through, say, an Instagram DM and then pick it up in person.
The FDA regulates interstate food sales and only allows home kitchens to be used for charity bake sales. From here, states can choose to expand upon that allowance – and almost all have – so cottage laws can vary widely by location. That makes things tricky for bi-state communities such as St. Louis and Kansas City, where bakers have to take into account the cottage laws in Illinois and Kansas. “As a cottage business [in Kansas], the pies I make are required to be shelf-stable,” explains Kristin Brumm, owner of Pie Goddess in Olathe, Kansas. “So that limits me a little bit. I can do all manner of fruit pies; I’m just not able to do custard-based pies.” Brumm is also unable to sell across state lines; Missouri customers can order her pies and pick them up, but she can’t sell at any Kansas City, Missouri, farmers’ markets, for example.
“[In Kansas] cottage bakers fall under the same regulations that somebody selling at farmers’ markets would; we’re not required to be licensed,” says Brumm. “But there are strict criteria that we have to abide – we have to include ingredient labels in a specific format, that sort of thing.”
Brumm had to consider the regulations her state does have when she began to think seriously about Pie Goddess in 2020. Like many, she began baking more during lockdown last year and started posting her decorative pies on Instagram and baking for local fundraisers. Soon, friends and friends of friends were asking if they could buy her pies. After investigating the cottage law in Kansas, with some guidance from the Kansas Small Business Development Center at Johnson County Community College, Brumm launched the business in October.
Pie Goddess serves up classic pies such as apple, blueberry and cherry, plus other baked goods, including double chocolate, peanut butter-chocolate and Kahlúa-espresso brownies. Brumm has garnered a lot of acclaim for her custom pies, which feature intricate crust designs – imagine Kansas sunflowers, a dolphin jumping out of the ocean and even Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The ability to operate under cottage law was key for Brumm, as it’s a part-time gig – she has continued her career as a nonprofit management consultant. Pie Goddess would likely never have come to fruition if she would have had to rent a commercial kitchen space and pay for health department inspections and more.
For Jenna Rozum, owner of Sommersweet Bakery in Columbia, Missouri, the flexibility allowed by the state’s cottage law was essential, as she works as a horticulturalist at the University of Missouri by day. Sommersweet Bakery, which Rozum started out of her home in late 2019, offers custom-decorated sugar cookies, from wedding-ready calligraphy and local business logos to Missouri Tigers and White Claw can cookies for bachelorette parties.
Initially, Rozum tried using royal icing after watching cooking shows, and she got so good at it that her family encouraged her to start a business. She began taking commissions for family baby showers and holiday gatherings, and when that was a success, she posted her creations on Facebook. The orders started coming, and she realized she could turn Sommersweet into a real business.
“The nice thing about cottage law here in Missouri is that it allows you to do this from home – because in some states it doesn’t,” says Rozum. “There’s really no overhead, as long as you have an oven. In order to have a storefront, there are just so many upfront expenses. The costs are insurmountable if you don’t have the desire to make this your full-time [job].”
At Midsommar Gardens in Springfield, Missouri, cottage law gave Ellen Neville-Verdugo the opportunity to test the market. Midsommar Gardens specializes in Swedish-style baked goods such as cardamom buns and kaffekaka (coffee cake), so Neville-Verdugo wasn’t sure if there would even be a demand for her treats in the Ozarks. During the week, she works as a librarian – which gave her a perfect outlet to research small business and cottage law.
“Cottage-style baking has really given me the ability to see what people in Springfield are hungry for,” says Neville-Verdugo. “My items are pretty niche, and this gives me the flexibility to make exactly what I want to in smaller quantities. Additionally, it allows my time to be really flexible. I’ve worked for several area bakeries in the past and I’ve seen firsthand the struggles that being responsible for a storefront can bring. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but taking this route took very little in terms of startup costs for me.”
Neville-Verdugo says that the setup was fairly easy. She was able to research everything she needed in terms of paperwork online, and it was far less red tape than a full storefront would have.
“For me, it’s been most appealing because of the flexibility. I just love being at home, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, any opportunity to minimize contact with others is good. So this has been kind of perfect timing.”
In St. Louis, cottage baking was a natural choice for Sompit Vasey after she moved from Thailand with her now-husband. “I’m a working woman – I worked at big corporations in Thailand,” she says. “I met my husband [because] we worked at the same company. We had to decide who would move. Is he going to move to Thailand, or am I going to move here?”
Ultimately, the couple decided to move to the U.S., where Vasey’s degree didn’t transfer, limiting her options. She considered going back to school, but with daughters at home, she turned to an old skill: cooking. Although baked goods aren’t common in Thai cuisine, Vasey took baking and cake decorating classes to expand her skill set.
Ma Yim Bakery specializes in curry puffs, a savory pastry popular in Southeast Asia. They’re perfect party appetizers, says Vasey, as she delivers them ready to pop in the oven. Vasey uses French techniques – think puff pastry or croissants – to give the curry puffs a light, crispy and flaky texture wrapped around tender meats such as duck, shrimp and chicken.
“That’s where I had the idea: Maybe I don’t have to go to school when I’m 55 years old; maybe I can use my skills to do this,” says Vasey. “Why don’t I have a storefront? I could take a loan, but [this way] I can take care of my daughters.”
Vasey attended a three-month business class at the International Institute of St. Louis before launching Ma Yim Bakery with the help of a grant from The BALSA Foundation; she also credits Square One Bootcamp hosted by the Center for Emerging Technologies (CET) in helping her get started. “The Square One Bootcamp intensive helped me a lot,” she says. “They give you a mentor to guide you in what to do, which was great for someone like me.” Ultimately, Vasey would like to be able to sell frozen curry puffs in local grocery stores, though that will require further certifications.
In Kansas City, J’llysa Dobson debuted Bread of the Month Club after she started working from home during the pandemic. Instead of commuting, she began baking.
“Have you ever heard of a book of the month club, where every month you can choose a book and then it will come to you in the mail, and it’s really exciting? That’s where I got the idea,” says Dobson. “I was like, well, I should do that locally for bread. I like to do things that are more unique that you wouldn’t just buy in a store somewhere. The first month I did a raspberry brioche babka; the second month I did a lemon braided bread.”
Dobson has a friend who was already baking under cottage law who helped her understand what paperwork was needed to get Bread of the Month Club off the ground.
“I asked her, ‘What did you do for the legal part of it?’ She said, ‘You just follow the Missouri cottage law.’ I was like, ‘What is that?’ I looked into it, and it was easy. I didn’t have any trouble,” says Dobson. “I really wanted to do this more as a hobby. It’s just something I really enjoy – I have a full-time day job. And I didn’t expect it to do as well as it’s done, but it’s been a fun challenge.”
Many businesses have been forced to close during the pandemic, but cottage law provides a socially distanced way for bakers to reach customers or launch a new business without the restrictions and overhead that a brick-and-mortar location requires. Porch pickup and local delivery have practically become a way of life over the past year.
“While the cottage food law limits what you can make, there are a lot of advantages, especially for me, making a new item that I haven’t seen in Springfield before – I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in it at all,” says Neville-Verdugo. “It was a natural step for me to turn my love of baking, gardening and Scandinavian traditions into a business. As an introvert and a homebody, being able to bake my products at home is a dream.”
Bread of the Month Club, breadofthemonthclub.com
Ma Yim Bakery, mayimbakery.com
Midsommar Gardens, midsommargardens.com
Pie Goddess, piegoddess.com
Sommersweet Bakery, facebook.com/sommersweetbakery
Upper Crust Bread, uppercruststl.com