Since the lockdown, there’s been an explosion of home-based food businesses selling everything from lasagna and barbecue to sushi bakes and steak. With many jobs lost, people are looking for alternate ways to earn a living, and food has become one preferred enterprise. The reason being, the bar is set fairly low—all you need is a working kitchen, a couple of good recipes, enough funds to buy ingredients, and a way to spread the word, usually through social media.
But as Chef Toogy Clavecilla shares, a home-based food business isn’t as simple as it looks, especially if you’re hoping to scale up production. Through his food and beverage consultancy Beyond the Menu (IG @beyondthemenuph) that he runs with his wife Laveena, they have helped a number of home-based businesses with their home kitchen set-ups, including Simply Bel’s, a Parañaque-based outfit started by Maribel Cervantes in 1989 (FB @simplybels).
Toogy Clavecilla during a restaurant training session.
Like most food businesses, Maribel Cervantes started Simply Bel’s in her home kitchen, with the family cook and household help as staff, preparing her specialties like roast beef, chicken relleno, sansrival, empanadas, and chicken pies. But as the business grew, the family soon realized that the existing home set-up had to change. “Our own relaxation space for all the family to convene practically all but disappeared,” admits Miguel Cervantes who, together with his two other brothers, help his mother Maribel with the business.
Simply Bel’s bestselling roast beef with corn.
While at some point, you may be tempted to invest in professional quality kitchen equipment—a new oven, freezer, or chiller—Clavecilla assures that you can still work with what you have, and offers five quick lessons to get your home kitchen operation up to speed.
The number one limitation to a home kitchen is cramped space. Sharing of space with home-use items makes it more difficult to keep track of inventory and therefore the real cost of production. Limited space can lead to more accidents, mistakes, and oversights. There are dangers to fix in the kitchen, from wobbly or non-sturdy racks, slippery tiles and floor mats, to fire hazards like overloaded electric outlets or a poorly maintained oven and gas line.
The “home use” section of the Simply Bel’s kitchen.
Miguel Cervantes recalls, “Since we used our kitchen at home, work would ‘spill’ onto other areas of the house… Our father would not be able to listen to his music in the living room, as it would be used to prepare for orders. Also, our house would always be hot and smell of onion, garlic, and other food.” He adds, “It was challenging to increase sales volume due to all the limitations.”
To address space limitations, Clavecilla suggests creating a work flow by breaking up tasks into (1) raw meat preparation and fabrication; (2) food preparation; (3) actual cooking; and (4) food packing. You can create work stations, or if you don’t have enough space, then create schedules to do this.
The commissary section of the Simply Bel’s kitchen, with professional ovens and a mixer installed.
Tracking of ingredients is another challenge. “Many times, we would use the ingredients intended for our own consumption,” Cervantes admits. Clavecilla recommends making an inventory list of your raw materials so that you don’t keep rummaging to check your stocks. And label all food items to practice the FIFO (First In, First Out) method.
Less space is a cross-contamination risk because there isn’t enough distance between raw meat, food prep, and packing stations. Also, home kitchens tend to have porous surfaces (rather than the preferred stainless steel surfaces in pro kitchens) which tend to be harder to disinfect.
The compact Beyond the Menu test kitchen adapted to professional standards.
Normal home practices also don’t follow strict food safety standards. Clavecilla illustrates, “Having an electric fan nearby or inside the kitchen is not appropriate because it can blow physical contaminants around, most likely, too small for us to see!” Even staff eating or talking in the kitchen isn’t advisable since saliva droplets can land on work surfaces and food.
Multi-tasking while cooking—answering the door or phone, handling money, checking on the kids or pets, and the list goes on—can be another source of contamination as well. And then there’s food handling, for example, how to properly thaw frozen food; how to cool hot food rapidly within 2 hours before packing; how to cut vegetables ahead of time and store them before using.
So, you have to be extra vigilant about cleaning and disinfecting. Clavecilla suggests a cleaning checklist so that you can ensure the level of thoroughness from top to bottom. Then have weekly checklists for deeper cleaning and monthly ones for maintenance work.
And don’t forget possible pest infestation, requiring an increase in frequency of pest control treatments. Clavecilla reminds, “Sometimes it’s not just about how clean you are, but also how clean your neighbors or surroundings are.”
Your home oven may not be hot enough or does not evenly distribute the heat. Or else, your stove flames are not strong enough for bigger pots. Or if your exhaust isn’t properly working, this may raise the temperature of your kitchen, thus leading to bacterial growth. All these can be addressed by making sure your equipment is in tip-top shape and operating efficiently.
Simply Bel’s started off with home-use kitchen equipment, but Cervantes relates, “The limitation here is that many of these small home-use tools broke down often due to the increasing usage due to increasing order volume.” Simply Bel’s eventually invested in a ventilation system and airconditioning, stainless steel work tables, and a dough sheeter to make their empanadas, chicken pies, pastel, and apple pie.
Chicken king pies by Simply Bel’s
This is important so that you don’t overcrowd and you can maintain proper temperature controls.
If your chiller isn’t organized, you may end up keeping the ref door open for longer periods as you search the shelves for what you’re looking for. Constantly opening the freezer and chiller prevents you from maintaining the proper temperature.
A row of chillers and freezers, and an airconditioner, in one part of the Simply Bel’s kitchen.
Your household staff may be used to leaving cooked rice out in the kaldero or rice cooker all day. But cooked rice left at room temperature is a playground for bacteria. Or they may touch the faucet with their bare hands after cutting up raw chicken. And how often do they really throw out sponges used for dishwashing? These are all danger points for possible cross contamination.
Clavecilla suggests laminated, illustrated reminders using very simple words posted all over the kitchen, or in relevant areas. These would include proper handwashing and cleaning procedures, preventing time and temperature abuse, and warning about cross contamination.
Household staff should also know about proper attire and grooming, advises Clavecilla. Work clothes should be clean and not exposed to the dirt and dust of the outdoors. Staff should wear hair restraints, sport short nails, remove all watches and rings, and with current COVID precautions, even wear masks and gloves as well.
Simply Bel’s signature sansrival.
It’s been more than 30 years since Simply Bel’s started as a humble home-based business. “We started by using our own cook and household help to prepare for our orders. Eventually, we had to hire more help. We had one longtime cook who started with us in 1989 and recently started her own catering/bakeshop in the province,” Cervantes shares. The success of Simply Bel’s is certainly due to Maribel Cervantes’ cooking skills and special family recipes, but its longevity and consistency may not have been achieved without its efficient and professional-standard kitchen operation.