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Thoughts on Breaking the Law, Plus: A Candid Recap of Unique LA

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Recipes, thoughts and rants from Mallow & Hop.

Thoughts on Breaking the Law, Plus: A Candid Recap of Unique LA

Karen Marshall

How many times a day does the average person break the law?

In his book Three Felonies a Day, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate estimates that the average person unknowingly breaks at least three federal criminal laws every day.

In researching this post (via Google, as all research is done nowadays - cue librarian crying into their tea) I came across this list of the 13 most commonly broken laws. Of these in the past month alone I have: sped, jaywalked, used my cellphone while driving, connected to unsecured wi-fi, sung happy birthday, and partook a little mary jay which also falls under sharing medication... I lived in New York for a full 7 years without updating my CA drivers license. In fact, my October renewal was the first license I've ever had to not list my parent's home, where I have not lived since 2004. I've also thrown out old tenant's junk mail, and, like most millennials, engaged in a small amount of digital piracy. 

Relevant XKCD, as ever.

Relevant XKCD, as ever.

One of the problems with blogging about this CFO experience is that it makes skirting the law in minor and insignificant ways a conundrum: if I do try to do something minor but certainly illegal, I can't plead ignorance. I've already blogged about it! The only thing I can plead? "Everyone else is doing it." You're not really speeding if every other car is also going 80, right? It's dangerous not to keep up with the flow of traffic. And really: everyone else is doing it. I know. I've asked them.

There are a number of rules and regulations that make it hard to color within the lines with a CFO. I've already had to turn down the offer for a promotion in Santa Barbara (the only Wholesale bite from Artisanal LA, for the record) because the organizer insisted on me shipping the items, which I wasn't yet ready to do.

3 TEMPTING LAWS TO BREAK:

  • Every label needs to be on file with the health department. This means that to fully follow the letter of the law, for each new product you roll out, you have to resubmit your entire cottage food application and worst of all pay the $254. Verbally, my health inspector told me that I could work within variations on the product (marshmallows) without having to resubmit. But when does a marshmallow stop being a marshmallow? When it's covered in chocolate? If it does, why does it differ so substantially from having chocolate mixed into a marshmallow, like for the approved Mint Chocolate Chip or Mocha Chip?
  • Being a food vendor is prohibitively expensive - on top of booth fees that cost $300-700 for a weekend or even sometimes one day, you need a $101 permit ($70 without sampling) with the LA Dept of Health for each venue. These are given out per location, for 1 month. There is no discount for for 1 day event, which most of them are. So why am I not trying to sell at a Farmer's Market or smaller pop-ups? Add $101 to the vendor fees for each day, and it makes it very difficult to clear a profit. A CFO told me that for an event this past weekend they spent $1000 in assorted fees. Think of having to budget for that while also setting a market price for your goods. 
  • Shipping. I can sell directly to any person within CA, but to sell to San Francisco I'd technically have to hand deliver them or require pickup. My best friend Casey visited Unique LA this weekend and didn't buy a thing - he picked up business cards with the intention of doing his shopping online from those vendors through this week. (Casey also helped me man the booth for 20 minutes so I could visit some fellow vendors. Thanks Casey!)

I'm here to tell you that one of those I've... bent. Multiple times. Remember those Dark Chocolate Orange Marshmallows from Artisanal LA? Unapproved. Same basic recipe as approved products, sure: but officially, unapproved.

Your small business is nothing if you can't learn and adjust. I've tried the "putting your foot down" method and as much as I'd love to believe in my powers of persuasion, it's not up to me to decide what people want to buy. That's not to say I'm giving up the flavored marshmallow gambit: I would never. I believe in them. But a slight tweak in presentation can make all the difference. Here are 5 "new"/seasonal products I sold at Unique LA this weekend.

Each of these labels did, for the record, abide by all of the labelling standards set forth by the county of Los Angeles. 

So how did this work out for me?

Being perhaps more candid than I should, bear in mind that a table at Unique costs $375, the application fee $25, and the permit $101. Also bear in mind that I was close to twice as successful monetarily this weekend as I was at the previous event - Mallow & Hop is currently much closer to a labor of love than a cash cow.

Day 1

On Day 1, the income from all types of marshmallow packs (8 x 1.5x1.5x1" marshmallows) was $133. Income from marshmallow bars, chocolate covered mallows, cereal mallows, christmas tree mallows, etc was $181.25.

Those top 3 items don't lie.

Those top 3 items don't lie.

Day 2

For fear of ending up with a lot of marshmallow packs after the event that would sit on my kitchen counter getting stale, I started a 4 boxes for $20 sale (a pretty steep discount: 4 boxes retail for $28-32 depending on the flavors). This was a decently big hit.

That special deal sold more marshmallows: $273 of revenue (for $366 "worth" of product). The other items brought in $146.11. I don't believe that 4 for $20 would work outside of a holiday themed market, nor do I think that bringing the price down to $5 alone would result in more sales. It's a tricky alchemy.

Over both days, I made about $700 total. I probably came out even, on fees, ingredients, packaging, random display items. Not "even" as I said for the last event: barely squeaking under the cost of the booth alone. (I don't fully blame the event for that, for the record - with the new products and discounts, to compare would be apples & oranges).

A Breakdown of the Costs

 

Note that this does not include paying myself for labor, either for making the marshmallows, designing the packaging, or standing at the booth vending for 14 hours. I do this because I love it.

Picture courtesy my very supportive boss at my day job.

Picture courtesy my very supportive boss at my day job.

So what next?

Well, now that I have become a chocolate tempering genius, I want to further continue down the candy bar path. It is a much more accessible product, and possibly a gateway product. I'm excited to start experimenting!

Other random observations

  • If it is an option, I will never again choose a booth over a table. The booths at Unique were $650, vs $375 for a table. Add to that the cost of making the booth look anything but totally sparse, as my Artisanal LA booth did, and the time and effort it takes for both load in and load out: it's just not worth it. That extra space would not have led to an additional $300 worth of sales.
  • One other adjustment I made to packaging after feedback in comments here: serving suggestions and recipe ideas written on a little sticker on the mallow boxes. Thank you for reading!
  • I sold out of Passionfruit Marshmallows (having only made 8) at 2pm on Sunday - more than half of the people that bought them specifically mentioned that they were buying it for themselves and not as gifts. Go Passionfruit! 
  • Half of the people who went for the 4 for $20 deal included at least one Beer flavor in their purchase. This was heartening for me; they can be polarizing.
  • I am so so so curious about the economics of the other vendors at the show, and all shows. It's just Not Done to be totally honest about the financials, and that leads to feelings of self-doubt and insecurity - everyone else is a success, why aren't you? I'd wager 1/3 of the vendors there broke even or lost money, and I'd love to hear their stories. Or perhaps I am indeed the only one struggling...
  • Shoutouts as ever to fellow food businesses Letterpress Chocolate, IndieJams LA, SmashBakes and M Greenwood Jams. This community is so welcoming, friendly and supportive.