When Charles and Vicky Grubb purchased their historic Point Pleasant, West Virginia, home in 2004, they never could’ve predicted it’d become the center of their business nearly a decade later.
In 2012, the husband and wife team discovered their passion for creating decadent chocolates and have turned that passion into a way to support themselves financially, specifically to help pay for their daughter’s dream to study dance in Australia. Named for her, Hannahbug’s Chocolates is doing better than ever, the Grubbs say, even after the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I have to say that the timing for the cottage bakery law couldn’t have been better because that helped set the stage for us and other cottage bakeries out there,” Charles said.
Charles is referring to the Cottage Food Law passed in 2019 in West Virginia. Since, more Appalachian baked goods, jams and jellies, and troves of other homemade, shelf-stable items have been legally sold in the state under the law that, in essence, allows ordinary people to create and sell specific “non-potentially hazardous” items – like cookies or canned tomatoes. The law allows these items to be sold in a variety of locations, like farmers markets, stores and online.
West Virginia has been called the home of one of the most progressive cottage food scenes in the nation, yet the diverse identities of the food producers themselves are unfamiliar to most, just like the creativity of individual producers in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growing a Business During a Pandemic
Working full-time as a pharmacist, Charles spends about 13 hours a day on his feet, utilizing every spare hour he has outside of the pharmacy to make moonshine ganache, chocolate covered pretzels, or holiday-themed assortments.
Vicky works every now and then at a local jewelry store, but her main concern is managing their chocolate business.
The Grubbs’ goal is to devote 100 percent of their time to Hannahbug’s Chocolates and, one day, distribute their products across the country.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Charles and Vicky were concerned about the cancellation of homemade good fairs, or shows, that introduce people throughout the region to their signature chocolates and serve as sites for networking among producers and customers. But instead of reducing production as the pandemic shut down their local schools and businesses, the pair focused on retail sales and deliveries.
“When everything shut down, I think that really brought people’s attention to and helped shine a spotlight on small businesses like us,” Charles said. “We have seen incredible growth this last year. I mean, it’s just been amazing.”
For Brandon Wallace, though, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to focus on smaller scale, more personalized orders that rotated depending on seasonal produce or special occasions.
Wallace is a young cottage baker in Wheeling, West Virginia, who injects a bit of his personality into every dish. He’s one of the few solo male producers in a primarily female industry, according to a 2018 report by the Institute for Justice, a non-profit public interest law firm. Uploading photos on social media of a custom Fortnite birthday cake or puffy pepperoni rolls, Wallace’s business style leans toward intimate and personal.
“When you’re talking to me, I’m just gonna talk to you like you’re a friend of mine. I’m going to keep you updated on how your food is going and when you can get it,” Wallace said.
Brandon doubled down and committed himself to being a professional cottage producer during the pandemic. With a partner in graduate school and a need for supplemental income, he took concrete steps to transition his cooking from a hobby to a full-fledged, legitimate business in March of 2020.
“I’d say it forced me to think a lot,” Wallace said. “I’m more serious about selling food out of my home because I would just do it here and there just for extra cash.”
And Wallace followed through on his promise — you can see his trademark “pep rolls” on the shelves at the Public Market in Wheeling, a year-round nonprofit farmer’s market and natural foods store located downtown. Growth has meant something different for Wallace than the Gibbs. Rather than hundreds of uniform chocolates being sold in malls, his success over the past year involves a more modest number of steaming pepperoni rolls on sale in one market, or an edible rosary of strawberry cupcakes at an engagement party.
In some cases, cottage food means more than additional income. It’s life-saving.
Cassandra Hamilton is a mother, wife and cookie artist in Maidsville, West Virginia. She makes paint-your-own cookie kits, watercolor designs and crossword puzzle treats. When her husband needed a double organ transplant in March and couldn’t work or contribute to childcare, she found a way to care for her children and generate an income during the brunt of the pandemic.
After losing her job due to pandemic-related layoffs in June of 2020, Hamilton took advantage of the flexible nature of the cottage food industry, performing childcare duties and selling cookies from her home.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do? My kid is not going to school five days a week now,” Hamilton recalled of when her son’s school shut down due to COVID. “My little boy — there were no openings for daycare cause everybody was shutting down. I was just trying to figure it out. So I was like, ‘Okay, maybe we can make this a full time thing.’”
Understanding of the medical concerns and health worries that came with the pandemic, Hamilton held drive-up cookie sales, sold individually wrapped goods with a heat seal and offered contactless pickups.
With schooling moving online, Hamilton’s eight-year-old son spent more time at home. He assisted in the cottage business while learning life skills from his mother.
“He’ll help me split ingredients and pre-measure. It’s made him more aware of the kitchen. He wanted to use the stove and pull cookie trays out of the oven. How many men do you know that grow up and don’t know how to do any of that? That’s been really important to me — teaching him that you don’t have to work outside of the home,” Hamilton said.
When the world was on lockdown, Hamilton invented safe ways for families to have fun and do an activity together using her products. In addition to her paint-your-own cookie kits, she kept up with confectionary trends on social media to maximize the enjoyment of young people.
“That’s really where my business started, doing things that were fun for the kids,” she said. “When the hot cocoa bombs came out, I did them with special marshmallows for the kids and the special colors and unicorn horns, stuff like that.”
Throughout the pandemic, cottage producers like the Grubbs, Brandon Wallace and Cassandra Hamilton responded in unique ways to fit their local environments and individual means while keeping their businesses going – or even scaling them up. Their backgrounds and motivations may differ, but each experienced growth due to common factors inherent to the cottage industry: the ability to manage one’s own schedule, work from home, involve children in the process and sell approved cottage goods in a variety of places. These factors all culminated for them in a prime opportunity to overcome the pandemic’s challenges.
“I need that flexibility. I need to be able to do something from home and take care of my children, and do all the things you’re supposed to do to keep my house running. I thank God every day that I’ll be able to do that,” Hamilton said.
There were still obstacles. A scarcity of basic commodities like flour and canning jars forced producers to search for substitutes, raise prices, or go without. At one point, Hamilton’s husband drove to buy flour from a store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – more than an hour away – because it was cheaper than all the options in their hometown.
Nevertheless, the cottage industry thrived in Appalachia when not much else did.
“I was like, okay, I’ve got to do this thing,” Hamilton said. “I started and it just flourished.”
Christina White is a 2021-2022 Fulbright García-Robles grantee who graduated from West Virginia University in 2021 with degrees in Biology and International Studies. She plans on attending medical school after her Fulbright experience in Mexico. Community food systems, public health, and immigrant health are her areas of interest. As an intern at the WVU Center for Resilient Communities, White produced this podcast episode on cottage bakers during the COVID-19 pandemic.