The onset of the pandemic in 2020 led Courtney Lopez to a unique solution for the age-old problem of making a living. Staying at home to take care of her young daughter, Lopez filled her spare time with baking.
“I started by mostly making things for my kids,” she said. “And then a couple of friends asked me to do some things for them. I started thinking, ‘Maybe I could make a business out of this.’ So I started looking into how to set that up.”
She started by choosing cupcakes as her specialty and trying out different flavors and frostings. “I passed them out to everybody in my neighborhood,” she said. “I also delivered them to family members in offices and had them share the cupcakes with their coworkers. I was just looking for feedback on how things taste.”
The strategy paid off, giving Lopez a head start in getting customers through word-of-mouth. In August of 2020, she launched The Chaste Cupcake, a Hollister-based business run from her own kitchen and made possible by the California Homemade Food Act of 2012.
The act allows certain products, known as Cottage Foods, to be made in private homes and sold to the public. It includes a wide variety of foods that do not require refrigeration, such as baked goods, vinegar and mustard, candy, dried fruits, pasta, granola, and roasted coffee.
“It was not too difficult to get the licenses,” Lopez said. “But it took me a while to realize you need several different licenses. You have to get the cottage foods and business licenses as well as a home occupation permit—the biggest complication was getting it done during COVID when a lot of the offices were closed to the public.”
As a long-term occupation, having a cottage foods business has many advantages, such as low overhead and the ability to set your own hours, which was perfect for Lopez. “I have a four-year-old with cerebral palsy,” Lopez said, “and it is nice to be able to take orders in a way that works for me so I can get her to physical therapy without having to juggle things all the time.”
One way she controls her time is to keep a fixed set of options for her customers to keep from overextending herself. “I keep my main menu pretty much the same at all times,” Lopez said. “But I do try to do something special each month, like this last month when I had a blueberry cupcake with lemon buttercream and a lemon cupcake with blueberry buttercream. That way, I can keep it interesting but not overload the menu so much that people can’t make a decision.”
“..Things have been turning out so well I am even considering having my own storefront…”
Home-based businesses are also useful as a short-term way of making money without the commitment and overhead of having a commercial kitchen.
In 2020, Hollister resident Jenny Meza started Sweet Al Amor, a name suggested by her brother, as a way of paying for her college studies.
“I always baked as a hobby, selling just a few things at bake sales,” she said. “It became busy enough for me to turn it into a full home bakery, and I started to get serious. It is amazing to look back and see how much I have learned since then.”
Her biggest sellers are her chocolate chip cookies, made with brown butter, but there is almost no baked dessert that she does not offer.
“I started out doing churros but dropped that when I became busier with baking,” Meza said. “So right now, I am focused on custom orders, like towers made from macarons or doughnuts and cakes shaped like letters of the alphabet. I still like to bring in Mexican culture when I can, like empanadas, buñuelos, and the special pan de Muertos we do for the Day of the Dead.”
Besides her regularly advertised special offerings, like salted caramel cinnamon rolls, giant chocolate chip Valentine’s Day cookie hearts, and cupcake bouquets for Mother’s Day, she also offers a rentable Sweet Cart, a themed stand that can be customized for parties and events.
For all the elaborate work that goes into her large variety of creations, Meza downplays her talents.
“I picked a lot of it up on my own, just watching videos of people baking,” she said. “People think it takes a special skill to look at a recipe and know what to do. But I am actually just really good at following directions.”
Both Meza and Lopez depend on social media, in particular Facebook and Instagram, to market their products. Lopez also has a website, thechastecupcake.com, and Meza will be launching a site soon.
“Social media and Google have been really helpful,” Lopez said. “I get a lot of orders from people out of the area who want to send gifts to people in town. Word of mouth in this area is also really great.”
There has been a recent push to get the San Benito County Board of Supervisors to adopt the Cottage Foods Act’s companion program, the Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operations (MHKO) Program, which will allow home kitchens to produce up to 60 meals a week to be sold to the public.
The inspection and permitting process for MHKO kitchens are similar to those of the cottage foods business, but a wider range of foods can be produced through the program, turning home kitchens into small take-out restaurants.
These programs have helped people as a small step towards something bigger.
“I have always known I have wanted to do something with baking,” said Meza. “This year, I am going to start selling at the Farmers Market and see where that leads. Things have been turning out so well I am even considering having my own storefront. I can see that being my ultimate goal.”
If you’d like to indulge your sweet tooth, you can order directly from The Chaste Cupcake or Sweet al Amor online. Looking for even more choices? Check out these other local shops:
Photos courtesy of The Chaste Cupcake and Sweet al Amor.