‘Microfood’ operations flourished in the pandemic, from home bakers to couriers

Bread Worthy Bakery — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The COVID-19 pandemic taught many of us how to switch gears and pivot. In March 2020, as the regular 9-to-5 ruptured, many people quit their desk and retail jobs and started doing the things they’d always wanted to do, either as a side hustle or completely new beginning.

“As a person who works in the service industry, the pandemic annihilated your way of life,” said Sam Caster of Brass Ring Coffee, an Iowa City-based micro-roaster. While activity in shops died down, online orders spiked and home-grown businesses saw an opening.

Colleen Brennan of Bread Worthy Bakery and her husband Erik Dole were both working in a hotel restaurant when COVID hit, and they were asked to work weird hours, accept pay cuts, and take on new responsibilities as middle management and opportunities for growth vanished. “It was a terrible environment,” she said, recalling that they had looked at each other and agreed they couldn’t stay any longer.

After years of living abroad and completing pastry school, they chose to settle in Iowa City, an intentional choice for starting their bakery. “Iowa had both the cottage food and the home bakery license,” Brennan explained. These laws are actually quite rare in their flexibility for bakers, and Iowa is one of the only states with a home bakery license.

The cottage food license allows you to sell out of your house or at the farmer’s market, however you cannot deliver, sell wholesale, or make goods that need to be refrigerated. The home bakery license allows for delivery, wholesale and refrigerated goods, but sales must be capped at $35,000.00. Obtaining the licensing for a cottage food set-up is relatively simple in Iowa, Brennan said, and “it’s great because it’s a low start-up cost, and it’s a great way to start actually getting customers and getting a loyal fan base that is very cost-effective because you’re not paying rent,” she continued.

Bread Worthy Bakery – Zak Neumann/Little Village

Many of these “micro-food” or “underground” operations get their start on Instagram. “The micro-food community is one of the most accepting, nicest communities out there,” Brennan remarked. “If you message anyone a quick question, people are so willing to be like, ‘Here’s a recipe, let me help you.’”

Or they begin at a local Farmers Market, which was the case for both Brass Ring Coffee and Bread Worthy Bakery. Farmers Market experienced numerous hiatuses during the pandemic, but this year will operate again from May to October in the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City area. Vendors often barter and trade items at the market, making it a particularly collaborative environment for newbies and upstarts.

Again and again, these businesses emphasized that though these ventures can be stressful, they are more about the fun of it and savoring slow progress. Constellation Coffee is one of many ventures in the micro world that relishes the slow process. Brought to life by Wake Up Iowa’s Jarrett and Cristin Mitchell, Constellation offers coffee subscriptions as well as bags of beans both ground and whole delivered to your home. Cristin said, “It’s fun to have all the incubation happen within our home and just be creative with each other.”

Jarrett mentions the micro model has also provided them flexibility. “When it’s just direct-to-consumer, it can be more reflexive to the commodity market, as well as to consumer demand.”

Illustration by Julia DeSpain

Often these micro-operations start out small-scale, but quickly grow. “Last week was actually our biggest week ever — and so it was getting to the point where I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do all this,’” said Sam Caster. Marian Trochez of Elida’s Bakery, which opened in April 2020, echoes a similar sentiment, noting they’ve seen the number of orders they’re receiving increase every week. Abbey Uhlenhop of Second Rise Bakery recently felt the need to take a break from her home baking operation. She was saying yes to too many orders and it became a juggling act to complete everything while raising two small kids. She’ll be opening back up again soon, though, and says the challenge is knowing your limits.

For many, these micro operations are a true “side-gig” and complement a more regular full-time job. Kirsten Sogaard, who runs Gallop Courier and delivers many orders from micro businesses to their final destinations, is no exception. She also works as a full-time mail carrier for the United States Postal Service, so all of her deliveries are scheduled in advance, linking local artists and micro operations to the community.

At the beginning of the pandemic she found herself, as many others did, asking what her role was with the people around her, which led her to Gallop. “Unfortunately, and also fortunately for people, there was a level of taking the foot off the gas that needed to happen,” she said.

She focuses her services towards places that don’t necessarily have as many avenues to reach their customers, and sees Gallop as a slowing down of our on-demand culture and Amazon delivery speed “which is kind of taboo to even talk about — delivery and taking it a little bit slower,” she jokes.

Sogaard felt like she could make Gallop happen living in Iowa City and seeing people creating their own small operations. “[They’re] making things from their couch, or making things after they’re done working a job during the day. They’ve got to pay the bills, you know, and they just want to share their work with people.”

“People here, we like our makers,” Sam Caster said of the micro movement. “We’re not about macro things, we’re about supporting these local things that are interesting and unique and that feel like Iowa.”

This article was originally published in the 2022 Bread & Butter dining guide.

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