Nalley and Eric Rojas run Rojas Honey, a cottage business that sells pure, raw honey produced by local beekeepers. Photo contributed
Written by Frank Lopez
In many ways, cottage industries were made for these times.
A cottage industry is a small-scale business often operated out of a home instead of a store or purpose-built facility. As many other industries shift to working from home, budding entrepreneurs are jumping at the chance to start their own home-based businesses, many of them in food, arts and crafts.
A trio of cottage-based businesses has shared their advice for how to find success in the most trying of times.
Show me the honey
Eric Rojas, 33, is co-owner of Rojas Honey, which sells pure, raw honey. He started the home-based business after temporarily losing his previous job as a car salesman.
Eric co-founded the business with his wife and co-owner Nallely Rojas, 33, just after the pandemic started. He went back to work a month and a half later after regulations on indoor business operations eased. He currently works at the dealership part-time and delivers honey in the evenings.
Nallely helps run the business from home as she takes care of two young children.
“This was not really planned at all,” Nallely said. “It’s something we had to do. We had an opportunity with my sister and my brother, and that’s how it started. A lot of people are looking for healthy alternatives such as raw honey — it’s pure, it’s local and it’s supporting our local beekeepers.”
Right after he lost his job, Eric was offered temporary work by Nallely’s brother and sister-in-law, both beekeepers for orchard pollination. They told Eric that he should sell their honey and Rojas Honey was born.
Eric was then connected to other beekeepers in the area to source honey for the business. So far, Rojas has sold four barrel drums of honey — each holding about 55 gallons.
Eric and Nallely jar and label the honey themselves.
They started advertising on Central Valley Facebook group pages and Instagram, which really got them attention and even attracted customers from other states. Eric and Nallely went from delivering locally in May to shipping in October.
Nallely said they are going through the permitting process to be able to sell at local farmer’s markets and flea markets, but the pandemic has slowed down the process with the county.
“We want to get a stand and ship nationwide. We’ve noticed that a lot of states have a shortage of honey right now. We have people from other states — they’re not finding quality raw honey, or it’s too expensive for them. Even with the shipping costs it’s cheaper for them to buy California honey,” Nallely said.
Let’s see the cake
Pop-ups, food events and swap meets help bring attention to cottage businesses, especially ones just starting out.
Litzy Ibanez, 19, of Litz Delights in Madera, has long been interested in baking. She began selling baked goods, cakes, cake pops and chocolate covered strawberries with themed box sets in the middle of the pandemic.
The holiday themed gift sets are popular items. The Litz Delights Instagram page has more than 1,000 followers.
“I really love what I do. Every day I wake up and I enjoy what my day consists of. I really do think that I want to go bigger, but I also want to go to school. Hopefully I can keep it going and keep a consistency that will help me grow,” she said.
Ibanez mostly started advertising through Instagram, but she gained a lot of followers when another Central Valley Instagram page promoted her work.
Though she is just starting out with her business, she hopes she can continue to grow her base and expand the business.
Ibanez said cottage businesses give startup entrepreneurs lacking capital a chance to take their first step into the business world.
“A lot of middle-class people don’t have the money to buy a bakery or build one from the ground up. Now that the pandemic has started, a lot of people are starting realize that it’s ok to run a business out of your home. It may be more beneficial in the long run,” Ibanez said.
Hot cross buns
Cynthia Toledo, 30, saw her business take off during the pandemic.
Toledo is the owner and founder of Happy Bunz vegan donuts. Her vegan donuts started selling so well during the pandemic that she is now in the process of opening up a donut bakery in north Fresno.
A Central Valley native and former IT support specialist for four years after attaining her Bachelor’s from Fresno Pacific University, Toledo’s love of food and her move to a plant-based diet led her to bring more vegan and plant-based options to the area.
“I had the idea of Happy Bunz before I was eating plant-based foods. I’ve always loved donuts, but wanted to make an alternative donut — a healthy donut,” Toledo said.
She borrowed from a number of recipes for vegan donuts online, experimenting until she found a combination she liked. It took about three months.
Happy Bunz made its debut at a pop-up event in Fresno in 2019. The donuts sold out. Over the next week, people were reaching out to inquire about ordering more. Toledo decided she wanted to move forward with her vegan confection.
With help and support from her partner, Toledo kept baking donuts at home.
When the business was first starting in July 2019, Toledo admits that the idea of a vegan donut delivery business probably seemed strange to people, but after the pandemic hit, and more restaurants and eateries started offering take-out and delivery options, sales really took off.
“Everybody started offering delivery and it became less weird. People aren’t going out. They are getting food delivered and trying new foods. We offered free delivery in the beginning to encourage sales and after that, it boomed.”
Because the clientele was growing, and there was increasingly less space in her home because of the baking equipment, Toledo began to shop around for a storefront.
As she scouted different locations, Toledo said that everything with a commercial kitchen was way too big and came with higher rents.
She did find a space in business center on Palm and Bullard avenues, but she will have to install a working kitchen, which will require fryers, sinks, refrigerators, stainless steel tables, storage and a hood vent system.
Toledo said if she buys all the equipment new, the costs will add up to about $40,000. Fortunately she already has some equipment in her home that will help keep costs down.
The hope is to open up around late March or early April. Toledo said she’ll probably hire two to three people to help out in the shop.
Though her business idea of a vegan delivery donut might have sounded out there even just a year ago, a growing clientele and rise in demand is transitioning a cottage business to a traditional one.
“If you have an idea, try it out. Start small, test it out, promote it. See if you can find a customer base. If you try something out and people are interested, maybe run with it for a little bit. The biggest thing I would recommend is too seek guidance from someone that already has experience.”