Business / Economy

Cottage businesses spring up during pandemic

San Benito County residents find ways to earn money at home doing what they love.

Jessica Villalon just moved back to Hollister and always loved baking. Norma Ortega got laid off from her job after 21 years and needed work. Maya Dizon wanted to be in business with her best friend Cristina De La Cruz.

These women all have one thing in common—they started cottage businesses driven by social media, taking a chance on making a living by doing things they loved.

Cottage businesses or industries are small businesses run out of a home rather than a storefront or commercial site. They can be started on a small scale and be expanded as demand increases. They require less investment to create and have less overhead than a traditional storefront.

Jessica Villalon of Love & Flour. Photo courtesy of Jessica Villalon.
Jessica Villalon of Love & Flour. Photo courtesy of Jessica Villalon.

Love & Flour began when Villalon’s husband Anthony got discharged from the Army. He had been stationed in Hawaii and the couple returned to Hollister.

“I have been making sourdough for the last year and I thought it was really interesting,” Villalon said. “Sourdough is a challenge, it is such a science the way the bread is going to rise, the timing, the heat. So many different elements. I knew when we got back to Hollister I wanted to start my own business making sourdough. I researched everything when I was still in Hawaii and I was able to get my business license and my baker’s permit from Environmental Health.”

Filled doughnuts. Photo courtesy of Jessica Villalon.
Filled doughnuts. Photo courtesy of Jessica Villalon.

Villalon paid $119 for the business license and $118 for the cottage baker permit. The Hollister license is a simple form that applicants mail in. Fees vary depending on the type of business. The permit takes more time.

“I got a Class A permit, which allows me to sell out of my home,” Villalon said. “I had to make mock labels that included all my ingredients. I had to figure out things like their net weights, so that got a lot more detailed. It is really very complicated.”

For home bakers and cooks, there is a wide range of products that can be sold, including bread, cake, pie, popcorn, vinegar, mustard, honey, and chocolate. These businesses cannot sell anything that requires refrigeration, such as meats, custards, or juices, in addition to pickled or acidified foods. There is also a requirement to take a food handling training course, and sales are limited to $50,000 or less per year.

Getting Sweetheart Bouquets started was a little easier for Dizon and De La Cruz. The two friends both work at Lolla, a restaurant in San Juan Bautista, and one day Dizon was looking at pictures of bouquets De La Cruz had made for her family members. 

“I told her that she should start selling them because they were so beautiful,” Dizon said. “She asked me if I wanted to do it with her and I thought it would be cool and fun, I would be hanging out and running a business with my best friend. So one day after work, we went to Trader Joe’s, bought some flowers, and made our first bouquet.”

Maya Dizon and Cristina De La Cruz of Sweetheart Bouquets. Photo courtesy of Maya Dizon.
Maya Dizon and Cristina De La Cruz of Sweetheart Bouquets. Photo courtesy of Maya Dizon.

Within a week, they had outgrown Trader Joe’s and began relying on a commercial flower source to keep up with the demand.

“We have received a lot of support from the community and from local businesses,” De La Cruz said. “Sarah Griss at Lolla has been a big help and we are looking at Brewery Twenty Five’s parklet for popup sales. We have done farmers markets and seen great turnouts. We also got a lot of our customers from our family and friends.”

For advice on getting started, the pair sought out De La Cruz’s father, Lolo, who has his own business. He gave them the links he used to get his business license, seller’s permit, and a tax ID. But De La Cruz was already ahead of the curve because of her college studies.

Cristina De La Cruz and Maya Dizon. Photo courtesy of Maya Dizon.
Cristina De La Cruz and Maya Dizon. Photo courtesy of Maya Dizon.

“All of the business and accounting stuff is easy for me,” De La Cruz said. “I am an accounting major and keeping track of our business is really good practice for me. I really enjoy that aspect of it.”

For Ortega, the shock of being laid off from her job at a local chocolate factory made her turn to her gardening skills to earn money.  

“A lady gave me about 10 different kinds of cactus and succulents about two years ago,” she said. “They are so easy to maintain and I just fell in love with them. When I got laid off, having all the plants to work with was my therapy and it helped me so much. A friend of mine suggested I start selling them so I set up a table in front of my house.”

Her plants became so popular she decided to turn her efforts into a business, Normita’s Succulentas, and plans to sell this month at outdoor markets.

“I am still working on the business license because I am so new at all of this,” Ortega said. “I was just selling from my home before, but I want to do more. I reached out to a friend of mine, Supervisor Mark Medina, and he is helping me figure it all out. I am still learning.”

In lieu of storefronts, all three businesses are utilizing social media to advertise their products directly to buyers in San Benito County, using Facebook posts in community forums and promoting on Instagram.

“My daughter told me to set up an Instagram account,” Ortega said. “I started just posting pictures of my plants then I started showing my arrangements. People message me about them and I have them come over to my house. When they come, I take them through my garden and usually they end up with several things.”

For Dizon, social media is a way to showcase the uniqueness of their work.

“We can show our bouquets, which are kinds you do not usually see in Lucky or Safeway,” she said. “So people can see something more than just roses and greeneries. We like different colors and textures, more vibrant and full. And we can show our flowers in a COVID-friendly way.”


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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.