By Vic Dolcourt
October 2015 – A community college teacher in Berkeley is sharing the ethos and flavors of her native Vienna by remaking Viennese pastry and bread recipes as gluten free, baking them in her kitchen and selling them via the California Homemade Food Act.
Barbara Widhalm, owner of Babsi’s Viennese Treats, is raising a teenage daughter and teaching at Laney and Merrit community colleges. In her spare time, she is launching her company by selling European delicacies at farmers’ markets and creating pop-up Viennese coffee houses. She is also over halfway towards her crowdfunding goal of $7,000 to enable her expansion. The ability to legally offer homemade foods makes it possible for someone with a great idea to go into business without being tied to the rigid schedule associated with busy commercial kitchens. The State of California is friendly to entrepreneurs like Barbara.
Featuring low sugar, nuts and chocolate
Barbara aspires to bring two aspects of her native Vienna to the Bay Area: low-sugar Viennese pastry and the ambience of Viennese cafes. Towards the first goal, Barbara is a regular at the Mill Valley and Fairfax farmers’ markets and has gigs at a variety of events, such as the San Francisco Farm to Fork Expo. She bakes a spectrum of gluten-free pastries that feature the flavor profile that characterize Vienna: not so sweet, a focus on nuts, nut flours, and, of course, chocolate. One of her pastries is made with all poppyseed flour, which is traditional in Austria. “All of my pastries are gluten-free,” Barbara said, “and I use mostly organic ingredients, mostly locally sourced from the farmers I meet at the farmers’ markets. Most traditional pastries are made with eggs and butter, but I also bake for people who maintain diets that are sugar-free, nut-free, dairy-free and vegan.”
Viennese coffee house concept
Selling gluten-free Viennese treats at farmers’ markets is the first step towards Barbara’s goal. She is also pursuing a creative passion to introduce Bay Area residents to the concept of Viennese coffee houses. “One thought is to collaborate with a local shop to create periodic authentic Viennese coffee events. The Viennese coffee house culture is unique, a cultural heritage recognized by UNESCO,” Barbara said. The BBC published a video on them that highlights their elegance, formality and community spirit. Barbara recently tested the Viennese café concept at a fundraising night at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley. “We created a bit of Vienna in Berkeley for a few hours, and the cozy atmosphere was relaxing and stimulating to all of us.”
The cottage food industry
Have you heard of the California Homemade Food Act? I certainly hadn’t until recently. An article in the September 2015 issue of Bon Appétit magazine sparked my curiosity. Petit Trois, a Los Angeles restaurant featured in the magazine’s “Hot Ten” list of America’s best new restaurants relies on bread baked by a woman in her Beverly Hills apartment. “Petit Trois is successful because of the bread. Period,” according to chef Ludo Lefebvre. If a tiny cottage industry operation was the key to a restaurant reaching such culinary heights, I wanted to learn more about how homemade food becomes available to the public. When Barbara Widhalm responded to my search for a local gluten-free cottage industry, I had the opportunity to delve into the subject.
Is California unique?
At least 29 states, including California, have laws enabling individuals to sell certain types of foods that they prepare in their home kitchens. Although the various state laws can be very different, there are some common aspects: there is a maximum annual sales amount, the types of foods and ingredients are restricted, all require formal permitting, and all require health inspection. In California, baked goods must be made without cream, custard or meat fillings, and the foods must be specifically labeled according to the laws governing the sale of cottage food.
All counties within California support cottage foods. In addition, a few cities have formal processes that define the approval steps. Although this may seem like an extra layer of bureaucracy, these cities are helping the business owner more rapidly zero in on issues that could get in the way, such as zoning. Berkeley is one Northern California city that has formalized the cottage food approval process.
Working with the city
“It’s a good thing I’m an academic in my other life because it took some amount of research and effort to get certification,” said Barbara. “Looking back, it really wasn’t bad at all. Berkeley has one staff member as a primary go-to person on cottage foods, and he is very knowledgeable. I needed to get a fictitious business name statement, zoning approval, a business license, take an online course in safe food handling, and have a kitchen inspection because I sell retail.”
“One other thing: I have to have all of my recipes approved by the city, but they are pretty quick — generally a week.” I asked Barbara what the city is looking for. She said that spoilage is a concern and that cottage foods are limited to those that might go stale but not spoil into something bad. The City of Berkeley has developed a list of steps as well as a self-certification checklist to guide the prospective business owner. The guide contains a list of do’s and don’t’s, such as excluding infants, small children and pets from the food preparation and packaging area and forbidding smoking.
“My long-term goal is to spend more time on my business and less time on teaching. I find that baking provides a healthy balance and that both activities are congruent to my desire to nurture and nourish community,” Barbara said. To support Barbara’s work and expand our community’s opportunities to experience gluten-free Viennese treats, donate to her GoFundMe.
For more information about Barbara’s menu of treats, ingredients and her participation in upcoming events, check out her website and Facebook page. The pop-up events are a bit unpredictable, according to Barbara, so it makes sense to tune in periodically. You can also arrange to pick up a pastry order in Berkeley or request delivery within the Bay Area.