The local and craft food movement comes in many flavors—that’s a big part of its appeal. But almost all of the movement’s farmers, producers, and entrepreneurs share the first-hand knowledge of how hard it is to make a living selling carefully created food in small batches.
Nearly every morning, Walter Warner and his wife Nancy stumble out of bed around 7:30 a.m., fire up the coffeemaker, and get to work: emailing customers, labeling jars, contacting suppliers, processing orders. As the owners and sole employees of The Potlicker Kitchen, a Bethel, Vermont-based jelly maker, the Warners have become used to the varied demands of a start-up enterprise. After several hours of paperwork and phone calls, it’s off to Waterbury Center, 45 miles away, where the couple rents a commercial kitchen, to cook and jar their jellies. Then, maybe around 10 p.m., it’s back home to prepare more labels and shipments. Typically, they don’t get to sleep until 1:30 a.m. “Long days,” says Walter. “If we just do 12 hours, it’s been an easy one.”
Potlicker’s story begins in the fall of 2011, when Nancy, home alone while Walter had an externship in Washington, D.C., fretted about running out of fruit for the winter. She started canning—“It was an addiction,” she says—and quickly latched on to jelly making. She experimented with unusual flavors made from the beer of Vermont microbreweries and wines such as burgundy and chablis. By the holidays, creations were gaining attention at different fairs; the following summer Potlicker jellies hit farmers markets and stores in central Vermont. Today, the company is a full-time job for the Warners, and their jellies are sold online and in stores across 13 states, with 3,000 jars of the stuff shipped from the couple’s home each month.
The company’s success has been expedited by Walter’s legal education. His work for the new business has run the gamut, from setting up the Limited Liability Corporation (LLC) to weeding through Vermont’s Department of Health regulations to sorting out the trademark registration process.
A Food Regulation and Policy course he took at VLS helped him navigate the specific and sometimes obscure federal regulations for labeling. “We’ve definitely saved ourselves a few thousand dollars in legal fees,” Walter says.
In a portion of the food economy famous for its wafer-thin profit margins, those thousands of dollars make a difference. But there’s a deeper difference the legal training makes: it has to do with self-sufficiency; with personally understanding the laws that govern your business and your livelihood.