Due to a clerical error, Black Bear Soups and Produce almost rolled out to the public as “Black Bear Soap.” Ellie Costello, owner, tells us that this is only one of the small challenges she has faced while trying to establish her business and sell her locally grown and handmade soups.
Ellie attended AERO’s Growing Food Business Workshop last spring, and was interested in learning what next steps she could take in order to grow her business. She admitted that many portions of the new Cottage Food Law don’t apply to her because her soup products need to be created in a commercial kitchen. However, there are a number of grey area items included in the soup production, including dried herbs and spices. Although regulations from the Department of Public Health and Human Service are becoming clearer, more streamlined and consistent, (see AERO’s Spiritworks Herb Farm and Healing Arts Sanctuary writeup), Ellie chose to rent a kitchen space in a commercial kitchen from the start so as not to run into any problems. This way, she avoided the confusions of the Cottage Food Act, and her products would be prepared according to USDA regulations.
2017 will be her third year working part time with this business, and most of her sales are at the Saturday Market in Missoula, selling directly to customers. She also aims to obtain a catering license to provide her delicious, mostly vegetarian soups to larger groups. Ellie grows her own produce in Missoula on a rented farm plot, and what she can’t supply from her own land, she sources locally from other farms. “Because soup is so versatile and broad, I knew I would be able to use almost any kind of produce grown in Montana,” Ellie said. “This was crucial because I not only wanted to provide soups during the winter, but year round as a quick, healthy meal option, and I appreciated the thought of serving our customers in a way that helps them feel more in sync with the natural progression of the crop season.” She felt the versatility would allow a menu that adapted to each harvest season.
Ellie thinks customers might like to see that the produce she grows goes directly into the soups, so she may sell veggies next to the soups at the Farmers’ Market this year, as well. Ellie’s full time job is Organizational Director for Missoula’s Urban Demonstration Project (MUD), where she works to promote urban sustainability efforts in Missoula, so her time to grow the business is limited. She has many ideas, such as joining the Western Montana Growers Cooperative, and providing her soups in a CSA style, but hasn’t been able to fit it in her schedule yet. “It is tons of work, and not a lot of profit. I’m time and income limited, and right now there is no budget for marketing or business planning.” She says she’ll keep working on making soups because, “this type of business hasn’t gotten a fair shot yet.”
For Ellie, networking through AERO, or other partner’s workshops, has been valuable. With the Cottage Food workshop, she told us, “it was great to have all the various people in the room – the health department, other producers. The discussions at the workshops helped create inspiration and ideas that were maybe on the backburner.” She feels supported by the Missoula nonprofit Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), and is grateful for free or affordable trainings, such as their Planning for On-Farm Success workshop. “The challenge for people in farming or agriculture is marketing and business planning. I’m good at growing and making things, but not great at sitting in front of the computer,” she laughs.
She mentioned, “It has been nice to see that the Health department in Missoula is willing to step back and evaluate some of the regulations. When it’s too much for small businesses, they recognize the challenges and are working to make changes happen.” Ellie believes one of the best innovations in the Missoula area has been the Moonlight Kitchens incubator, run by AERO members Anne and Pat Little. Black Bear Soups and Produce uses the commercial kitchen there to prepare their food products, and Ellie fully supports their vision of offering facilities that community members can use to expand production and business opportunities.
Ellie says she is going to give it her all in 2017, and use the things she’s learned over the last two years to make more delicious soups and recipes to sell. In formulating AERO’s fall workshops, we’ll definitely be taking Ellie’s and other’s comments into consideration. We want to provide Montana farmers, producers, local food heroes and others, what they give to us: hope, and really good food.