Montana Cake Whisperers: Cottage Food Permit Turns Butte Resident Into Cake Boss

By Annie Pentilla The Montana Standard, Butte

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This article takes a look at cottage food permits issued in Butte, Montana. The permits allow residents to create food products in their homes and sell them to customers without having to jump through the same hoops that commissaries and retail establishments do.

The Montana Standard, Butte

Since receiving her cottage food permit in November, Mary McAlexander of Montana Cake Whisperers in Butte has been whispering sweet nothings into the ears of Mining City residents with a hankering for frosted confections.

McAlexander said she's been busy baking cupcakes, cookies and cakes, ranging from simple styles to fondant-covered tiers and elaborately decorated behemoths, and selling them directly to customers.

The cakes come in a variety of flavors -- including traditional vanilla and chocolate, but also red velvet, orange creamsicle and pink champagne -- topped with frostings like huckleberry, salted caramel and cookies and cream.

"If you can dream it, I can make it," McAlexander said.

McAlexander is the first and only person to receive a cottage food permit in Butte-Silver Bow since the state made them legal in October 2015.

The permits allow Montana residents to create food products in their homes and sell them to customers without having to jump through the same hoops that commissaries and retail establishments do.

But cottage food permits aren't a free-for-all. Permit holders are limited to a list of approved foods, such as baked goods, granola, popcorn, candy, jams, jellies and other products that don't require refrigeration. They can't have employees and are required to follow packaging and storage guidelines. Similarly, they can only sell direct to customers and not in a wholesale capacity.

John Rolich, the retail-food and consumer-safety program manager for Butte-Silver Bow, said the permits generated a lot of enthusiasm when they first rolled out in 2015, but since then interest has waned.

"It's not as easy as it looks," said Rolich, noting that the food industry in any capacity is a tough gig.

Nonetheless, Rolich said the permits help entrepreneurs get their feet wet before launching into a full-scale business. McAlexander agreed.

"I definitely think it's a basic first step to test the waters and see if it's something you want to pursue without taking a huge financial jump into owning your own business," McAlexander said, adding that her ultimate dream is to open a New York-style bakery and deli, replete with black-and-white cookies.

"It's such a terrifying jump (to launch) your own business" she continued. "So it's just that fear, really, of doing it and being able to make it."

For now, the cottage food permit is helping McAlexander turn a lifelong passion into a business.

McAlexander said her recipes are ones she's perfected over time and that she even has notes on the speed and way she mixes the cakes.

"It's amazing how you can, just in the different times in mixing, how you mix it, the speed you mix it and everything, make a cake completely change (in the) texture, moistness and density," she said. "That has just come from trial and error and figuring out the process -- the science, I guess, of getting it right."

McAlexander has refined her techniques through her personal pursuits and years of work in the service industry. She has held positions at a variety of restaurants, including the Hanging Five Restaurant on Harrison Avenue in Butte, where she worked for over 30 years, working her way up from washing dishes and waitressing to becoming an assistant manager.

"That's what I've done my whole life is worked in restaurants," said McAlexander, who currently manages the Uptown Café on Broadway St. McAlexander said she enjoys making wedding and children's cakes especially, and that she creates top-tier wedding cake replicas free of charge for clients on their one-year anniversaries, so long as their original cake was over $150.

"I have just always had a love for cooking and baking," said McAlexander, reflecting on her new enterprise.

"I love when I deliver a cake the look on people's faces -- it's like delivering flowers to them."

"It's just a win-win all the way around," she said.

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