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6 Things to Know Before Starting a Food Business
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Heather K Adams
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Is your dream to someday open a little cafe, bistro, restaurant or hey, maybe a food truck? Culinary entrepreneurs start those and other ventures every day! So if you're wondering how to start a food business all your own, read on. We've got everything you need to know.

Types of food businesses.

Restaurant.

"Restaurant" runs the gamut from smaller joints, like cafes and bistros, all the way up to swanky, Michelin-starred establishments. Leaning toward a place with some more hometown diner vibes is obviously going to be the (slightly) easier route in terms of money and stress, but any restaurant requires a fair amount of scratch and gumption to get it up and running. But when it comes to figuring out how to start a food business of your own, remember that you can totally work your way up to a restaurant, getting your feet wet with something smaller.

Bakery.

Run from home (more on that, below) or from a shop, a bakery is ideal for the food entrepreneur who prefers to specialize. A bread bakery, a dessert shop, a cupcakes-only joint: the niche you choose is totally up to you. You can also hook yourself up to a restaurant, supplementing their dessert menu, or a caterer, branching out to large events and celebrations. The simple fact is, a niche bakery has more options than just waiting for customers to walk in off the streets. If you've got icing in your soul and biz sense to spare, starting your foodie empire with a bakery could totally work for you.

Catering.

Catering may not be the first thing you think of when deciding how to start a food business of your own. If you're tied to the image of folks in white shirts carrying hors d'oeuvres, dig a little deeper. The scope of your business depends solely on your discretion, and catering can encompass everything from small-scale family-style celebrations to large-scale corporate retreats and beyond. 

Even being a wedding caterer lets you choose between simple at-home affairs or big cathedral royal weddings. Okay, so maybe you won't land that particular gig, but you get the picture. Pick a cuisine, a style or a niche and build from there. You've got tons of options. Pro tip: hook yourself up with an events organizer to grow your biz using the buddy system.

Food truck.

Food trucks are totally au courant. Know what else they are? A cool, commercially-viable way to work around property ownership. Having a restaurant on wheels means you can focus on a super niche kind of cuisine or food, without having to worry about the local market. 

Why? Because you can take the restaurant to the customers! Park it on a street corner near the center of a busy college town or near the business district in a city (after verifying local food sales and parking laws, of course). Or go long distance: sports, music and festival circuits are another on-the-go option perfect for the food truck owner.

Personal chef or meal delivery service.

"Personal chef" is an umbrella term, covering a lot of miscellaneous food-related services that are available to the enterprising food lover. Because remember not to tie yourself to the brick and mortar idea of a traditional restaurant or cafe while you're figuring out how to start a food business. You can choose from everything from grocery shopping and delivery to cooking meals in someone's home (for special occasions or on the daily) to creating specialty items catering to specific dietary restrictions and made to order. If you love food and feeding people, there are so many more options than just running an eatery.

How to start a food business in 9 steps.

1. Decide what kind of biz.

What kind of atmosphere you want, for the customers and for you? After all, you're going to be spending a lot of your time there. Don't start something just because you see a need for it in the market. Make sure this is something you really want to do.

2. Decide what kind of cuisine.

Which involves creating a mock-up of a full menu. Knowing the kinds of dishes you want to offer and the ingredients involved, will help you estimate your food costs. These get factored into your overhead, which you'll learn even more about when you...

3. Write a biz plan.

Whether you're a stay-at-home baker or an aspiring restaurateur, having a solid plan is how to start a food business (or any kind of busness!), the right way. Not only will you flesh out the above steps more in depth, but you'll also address organizations issues, local market evaluations, equipment pricing and financing, among a fair few other things.

4. Find the location (or vehicle).

Once you know what you want to do and how you want to do it, your next step is finding the where. Look for the prime locations in your area or the right vehicle. If you plan to launch from home, get a contractor's estimate on any additions or modifications you'll need to make. Add all of these costs and estimates to your biz plan.

5. Get your $$$ up.

Unless you've been saving a while, and plan to do this all out of pocket, chances are you're going to need a loan. And from banks to investors to your well-off Aunt Marie, people are going to want to know why they should give you their money. That's why you need to get your biz plan together before you ever ask for a dime.

6. Address legalities.

Licensing, certifications, inspections, business registration: know what you need, and create a calendar just for official meetings and deadlines. Dealing with red tape isn't the most fun you'll ever have, but when it comes to your food biz, you better cross every single tiny t.

7. Purchase equipment.

And flatware, silverware and cups. And furniture. And... you get the picture. Outfitting your establishment can be fun, but it can also take a good chunk out of your folding money. Luckily, this is one of the areas where it's alright to look for discounted, discontinued or donated. Unless you're going top end with your food biz concept, don't be afraid to look for good deals.

8. "Help wanted."

Maybe you can get friends and family to log a few hours for you in the beginning, or maybe you're going to shoulder all the heavy lifting yourself for a while. Either way, it's never too soon to at least start conducting some interviews. Even if you don't need help from day one, go ahead and put the word out and see who's available in the local food community (there's totally a kind of restaurant grapevine). Because good help really is hard to find.

9. Open!

Set the date, advertise it and stick to it. Are you going to feel totally ready to do this? Probably not. Nerves are natural. But there will come a point when you just have to turn that "Now Open" sign, unlock the doors and get going.

How much does it cost to start a food biz?

Even the smallest of food businesses is going to run you at least a few thousand dollars. Licensing and certifications, food costs and equipment purchases really run up a tap. And then there are the costs associated with the physical space you'll need to find and perhaps adapt to your needs. All of these and more are going to give your check-signing hand a workout. You'll find a few places where it's okay to bargain hunt, like with furniture. Others, such as specialty ingredients, will demand better quality and a higher price tag. Doing your homework, especially writing out that biz plan, will make sure you're well-versed in all the costs associated with your particular food venture.

FAQs.

What's involved in getting a permit to sell food?

Permits and licenses are the big requirements for any food biz, but these will also vary by locality and type of business. Part of figuring out how to start a food business is nailing these legalities, obviously, so access your local health department online to begin gathering information. The FDA has additional resources as well. These will get you started with the forms you need, the fees you'll have to pay and any other hoops you need to jump through before you can start selling.

Can I make food at home and sell it?

This is a qualified yes. Having a certified kitchen, inspected regularly, is best. But the cost of any changes you need to make to your home in order to become certified may be prohibitive. You can work around this by turning a shed or back porch into a separate, certified kitchen, perhaps. There could be local Cottage Food laws that support you (check out your area). You can also look into food biz incubators or kitchen rental options near you. Or just start small-scale, with simple baked goods or sandwiches, selling to a limited customer base. 

How can I start a food biz with no money?

The shortest answer? Hustle! Spend your free time cooking, baking, promoting and selling. You can run a little food biz from home up to a certain point, especially if you're just selling to friends and coworkers to build up your savings for a future venture. Maybe you bake awesome cookies or create bagged lunches, for hungry coworkers to nab. Once you level up to street fairs or anything where food stands are available to rent, you'll need to pay for at least a certification or license. So build up to that.

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