Makin' Bacon 

Transforming your cooking skills into a business is a bureaucratic grind -- but there's hope for the little guy

So everyone loves your grandma's peanut-butter cookies. You've heard "You should sell these -- you'd make a fortune!" so many times you're beginning to take it seriously. What would it take to turn your hobby into a business?

Answer: a couple months of planning, more than a few thousand dollars, and contact with just about every permitting agency in the county. First of all, shrug off those fantasies of baking in your home. You need to either rent time and space in an existing commercial kitchen, or spend the bucks to convert your home into one. According to Ronald Browder, chief of environmental protection with Alameda County, the latter involves such steps as having the Environmental Health Department approve your plans down to the finishes and sinks, then securing the appropriate zoning, building, plumbing, and electrical plans -- and passing an inspection.

Which is why most start-up food-service businesses, bakeries, and catering companies look for a commercial kitchen to share. "I get a couple of shelves, fridge space, and freezer space, for about $300 for fifteen hours a week," says Kathy Wiley, who last year started up Poco Dolce (PocoDolce.com), and sells her baked goods to cafes, and via the Internet. Luckily, as long as you don't store food or receive clients in your home, you can at least use it for administrative purposes without zoning clearance.

Next, Wiley says, you have to handle all the business aspects: writing a business plan -- if you want to get any funding, that is -- securing a business license and insurance, registering a fictitious business name and, if you're selling the product yourself, obtaining a reseller's permit.

Remember those funny little nutritional analysis charts on every package you buy? Well, now you're responsible for posting them. Lab analyses can cost about $500, Wiley says, but they can tell you the shelf life, not just calorie content.

After going through all that rigmarole, you have just one more task: finding customers. Luckily, there are a few agencies and Web sites to help small businesses get rolling. In Oakland, for example, the city's Community and Economic Development Agency publishes a ten-step guide to starting your own business at Business2Oakland.com. Or plug your city into the CalGOLD site at www.calgold.ca.gov, and it'll spit out a long list of permits you may need, along with contact info for the agencies that issue them. The folks at the Service Corps of Retired Executives in Oakland (510-273-6611), provide counseling to new small- business owners, and the city's Business Development Corporation (510-763-4297) helps with loans. Patience, perseverance, and grace will get you through the process.

Wiley, for one, claims that after a year she's far from discouraged. "I'm broke right now, but I'm going in the right direction, and I'm happy."

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