Wholesale Food Production: The Roadmap

If you’re already producing food in a licensed environment, such as a restaurant or catering business, becoming a wholesale producer could be the next step for you to increase revenue by adding a new sales channel. You’ve already got the key ingredients required for wholesale production — a standardized recipe, your sources identified, and a solid grasp of food safety requirements — so the next steps will be identifying a space in which to manufacture at scale, obtaining a wholesale license, designing a package and label, and developing relationships with distributors.

So, what does that process look like? Massachusetts conveniently offers a slew of documents guiding you through the process, which we’ve rounded up for you here. There’s an accessible overview of the whole process, from business planning to distribution, and you can find aquicker summary of who you’ll need to contact at each stage, too.

As you’re beginning to think about wholesale processing, you’ll want to think about developing a business plan that includes your new direction. Questions to think about: which products would you like to start out with, and which might you add in later? Who’s your audience, and how will you connect with them? The New England Food Safety Consortium offers an extensive library on the start-up process to guide you through these types of questions, including product development and preliminary business planning. They can also point you towards the requirements for other New England states.

With a business plan in hand and a slate of product ideas at the ready, you’ll need to start thinking about the detailed process for turning your recipes into reality. Familiarize yourself with safety protocols for wholesale production and identify how they differ from your current production standards. All state food safety regulationscan be found on the MA Health and Human services website. Of particular interest (if you can make it through the 12,000 words of poorly-formatted legalese) is the state’s minimum requirements for good food manufacturing practices. This document covers safety requirements for each kind of food production, from low to high risk, and all the gory details of licensure. In short: get a license, use it on the premises, and don’t sell it to someone else.

Once you’re ready to implement these standards, you’ll need to identify a space to make your own. In the Boston area, CropCircle Kitchen offers a way to break into value-added production beyond getting a residential kitchen license (and if you’re making anything besides biscotti, you’ll need to take the extra step in licensing). It’s a shared use commissary that functions as an incubator for new food businesses, and has launched a number of successful entrepreneurs, including Batch, Clover, and Roxy’s Grilled Cheese. In addition to the prep and storage space available, CropCircle offers technical assistance and connections with wholesale distributors. All in all, working with an established commissary can be a way to smooth the path towards getting your business off the ground without reinventing the wheel. If you’re interested in selling Grandma’s Secret BBQ sauce, working at CropCircle could be a good way to test the waters before scaling up.

Once you decide that your preliminary business model is working for you and want to make the leap to wholesale production, the Western Mass Food Processing Center is another shared-use commercial kitchen that offers services geared towards larger producers. In addition to its prep facilities, the center offers co-packing services, professional development training, and separate facilities for different types of production, including value-added farm products.

Working with a co-packer can be an effective solution for producing your goods in large scale without investing in all the infrastructure and equipment needed. WMFPC can help set you up with one, and here’s a directory of co-packers throughout New England. Be cautioned, not all co-packers are the same; each has its own specialty (jarred items, frozen, smoked, etc). Here’s a list of considerations when selecting a co-packer.

If you do decide to strike out on your own, you’ll need to find a space and obtain a license from the state’s Food Protection Program. Infrastructure requirements, such as structural stability, plumbing, and equipment protocols are covered in this state brochure. Your license application will be followed up with visit by a state and/or local health inspector. That inspection will cover infrastructure and design, as well as your ability to keep prep areas sanitary and at required temperatures, and will double-check your labeling apparatus.

Labeling and packaging requirements may be found in another equally comprehensive 55-page document, covering value-added products from butter (“Butter shall be understood to mean the food product usually known as butter”) to Greenland turbot (not the same thing as halibut since 1969, in case you were wondering). In short: ID your ingredients clearly, don’t lie, and seal it up! For a more accessible, but less-detailed version of this information, reference this brochure indicating labeling requirements for packaged food, covering ingredients, nutrition information, allergen labeling, and health claims. As comprehensive as these resources are, keep in mind that all labels must also comply with federal requirements, too, so double-check.

Two other resources to keep in mind: UMass Amherst offers a Food Safety Education program, training towards food safety certifications. And once you’re in the business, the Massachusetts Specialty Foods Association is a great resource for producers of value added goods.

Ready to get started? We can help you with the business plan. And if you need help navigating the different agency requirements to get your product ready to bring to market, please contact our colleague Sean Hurley.

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