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If you’ve ever been curious about how to start a small food business and sell food online, you may have thought it’s as simple as stuffing some cookies in the mail.

The truth is that food businesses can be more challenging than selling most physical products. Food business owners must be meticulously organized and comply with various regulations. There’s also a high level of competition in the small food business market. Not to mention, your products have an expiration date.

But don’t worry, this article will teach you how to start a small food business online and how to sell food online effectively. We’ll cover everything from manufacturing to packaging to marketing.

Sound good? Let’s dig in.

How to Sell Food Online: Start and Scale a Delicious Business

1. How to Sell Food Online: A Production Space that Cuts the Mustard
2. How to Sell Food Online: Handle with Care
3. How to Sell Food Online: Spread the Word Like Artisanal Jam
4. How to Start a Small Food Business that’s Personal

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How to Sell Food Online: A Production Space that Cuts the Mustard

Food is delicious, but it’s also dangerous. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year. That’s why food manufacturing facilities need to be up to code.

If you’re opening a restaurant or a local food small business, you’ll want to check out the rules and regulations of your health department. But if you’re taking on how to sell food online, your workspace will need to register with the FDA and comply with its guidelines. This is because when you sell food online, there’s the potential for it to be shipped across state lines. 

Can I use my kitchen?

Since you could be shipping food items across state lines, your food business workspace must be compliant with the FDA, rather than the local health department. However, if you’re planning to serve food to customers in this same location, you will need to register and comply with both federal and local organizations.

It’s possible that you could use your own kitchen as a production facility as you first take on how to start a small food business. However, it’s not as straightforward as simply having a clean kitchen.

There are a few odd rules for using a home kitchen. First, no pets can be in the kitchen at any time. You also have to ensure that the cutlery and items you use to eat your own food never come in contact with tools used in preparing items for your small food business.

Sounding a little tricky? That’s why many foodie masterminds opt for a commercial kitchen when they launch their small food business.

Woman preparing food in a traditional kitchen not a commercial kitchen for an article about how to sell food online

How do I find a commercial kitchen?

Commercial kitchens are areas that are already registered and up to code for commercial food production. If you’re wondering how to sell food online, having a commercial kitchen will be like having an office. It’s the perfect place to prepare food, package orders, and keep all your information in one spot.

Then again, maybe you’re considering how to start a small food business because you live in a more remote area. Even if there are no commercial kitchen spaces available near you, you have other options.

Many food industry entrepreneurs get started by partnering with other small food businesses. Let’s say that you only need a small space for a few hours a day. The kitchen of any restaurant or cafe in your area should fit the bill.

Many businesses will work with you as you take on how to start a small food business. You could pay a small amount of rent to use the premises at “off-times” or utilize spare space that they have in the kitchen.

How to Sell Food Online: Handle with Care

The primary goal of food packaging is to protect food from physical harm, bacteria, and unsafe temperatures. But don’t think that you need to swaddle your goods in bubble wrap and freezer packs. If you don’t just want to learn how to sell food online, but also how to gain repeat customers, packaging is key.

Food packaging is an opportunity to showcase your product and reinforce your branding. If you’ve already mastered how to start a small food business locally, you may see selling food products online as a logical next step.

Since you already have branding in place or your small food business, we would recommend dedicating some careful time and consideration to finding the right packaging. You’ll want your packaging to be consistent with you established brand as you learn how to sell food online.

With so many food packaging options available, you might be able to find something that’s a perfect fit for your product. However, packaging options also call for flexibility on your part.

A collection of beautiful macarons is included in an article about how to sell food online from Selz the ecommerce platform to grow and scale your small business

First, think about the shape and size of your products. If you sell cookies that don’t fit in any of the standard boxes, you may want to consider how you cut or pipe them. Making a small change in production is easier than getting packaging materials with custom dimensions.

If your product is especially beautiful to behold, you may want to consider packaging that has a transparent facet, to showcase your product. Think about highlighting products like artfully decorated pastries, vibrantly colored herbal teas, and macarons.

It’s All in the Details

As you learn how to sell food online, you’ll learn that shipping can be hard on delicate food products. Consider padding items in a tissue paper the same hue as a color in your branding template.

Want to create an even better first impression? Consider adding a thank you note, a coupon for the customer’s next purchase, or even a free sample of a different product! You can even include fun branded items such as stickers or pins.

Of course, the most important aspect of shipping is safety. Use bubble wrap and tape to ensure that contents and custom packaging arrive in pristine condition. If you want to master how to sell food online, you need to think strategically about building repeat business customers. These simple details encourage customers to order from you again.

Read: Ecommerce Packaging Tips for a Successful Holiday Season

A collection of beautiful packages looks good enough to eat and packing is important when you're learning how to sell food online and how to start a small food business.

How to Sell Food Online: Spread the Word Like Artisanal Jam

Whether you’re just taking on how to start a small food business, or you have an established one, marketing is going to play a huge role in your success.

Digital marketing can be challenging. Lucky for you, the Internet is actually super conducive to building a foodie following.

Any local food business will benefit from local SEO and live events, but if you want to know how to sell food online, you’ll need to take a different approach.

Social media

Platforms like Instagram and Pinterest are great for sharing images and videos of luscious-looking treats. Both of them require stellar product photography of your food items, so you’ll want to invest in a good camera of the services of a professional food photographer.

Read: 7 Steps to Creating Picture-Perfect Product Images For your Online Store

For Instagram, you’ll want to showcase your work and ensure that it’s discoverable by others. There are a ton of food hashtags to choose from, so take some time and investigate which ones would be the right fit for your product. Look for ones that people are actively using (and therefore actively searching) and that suit your niche.

For Pinterest, beautiful images will gain repins, but not necessarily sales. To drive content to your actual site and online store, you’ll want to share that original content you’ve created on Pinterest. Articles and blog posts perform particularly well on Pinterest.

Go ahead and create a simple Pinterest graphic for each blog post you write. When you post it, describe what the article is about to increase your likelihood of showing up in search results.

Read: How to Start Pinning On Pinterest For Business

Email Marketing

Email marketing is a classic, effective way to reach your customers. As you master how to sell food online, you’ll notice how important timing is. In the food industry, the seasons are everything.

Your newsletter is the perfect way to introduce your customers to new, limited-availability products. This might simply be a bumper crop of rhubarb pastries for spring, but it can also be spice and herb mixes for Thanksgiving or holiday cookies.

Let customers know when you’re about to discontinue items so they can stock up. Also, tell them to order by a certain date to ensure products arrive by a specific holiday.

Your newsletter can also serve to tempt customers with a deal or discount. Knowing how to sell food online means knowing how to cook up an irresistible bargain as well. Offer up limited time savings on specific items, or a unique, free treat when a customer spends a certain amount.

How to Start a Small Food Business that’s Personal

The Internet is ripe with food blogs, but you don’t need to share your secret recipes to cash in on content. You can share your expertise in other ways as you encourage readers to connect with your food brand and make purchases.

For example, if you’re a baker, articles or videos such as, How I Create Unexpected Flavor Combinations, My Most Outrageous Wedding Cakes, and Petit-Gateaux: 6 Unique and Delicious French Cookies all have the potential to drive click-through traffic.

Pepper your content with links to food items that you sell and readers can become customers.

When you first tackle how to start a small food business and how to sell food online, creating content with authority can feel like a challenge. However, over time, you’ll start to have a better understanding of your niche, both for your customer base and your readership. Keep at it, and results will follow.

A woman eating and looking up food online shows the power of content when you're learning how to sell food online.

Making the choice to follow your passion and learn how to start a small food business is a big step.

It’s important to make careful progress to ensure that your products are properly prepared, delivered in style, and given marketing attention. Find a food niche that’s right for you. Over time, you’ll be able to scale your food business as you master how to sell food online.

There are other ways that foodie entrepreneurs can generate income as well, such as selling custom nutrition plans, offering digital downloads of budgeted meal plans, and working with brand sponsors. These approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, you can create a small food business that generates income in a variety of ways.

Every small business is challenging, but flexibility and organization are the keys to making it in the food industry. Savor the sweet success as you master how to sell food online and grow your business.

About the author

Tara Storozynsky

Tara Storozynsky

Tara lives in Portland, Oregon. She writes about the intersection of creativity and entrepreneurship, after a decade of working in the food and wellness industries. Her work has been featured by American Artists Watercolor Magazine, Salon.com, and others. Aside from writing content and copy, Tara also manages the affiliate program for Selz.