How to Sell Food Online: A Comprehensive Guide

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More often than not, a new ecommerce entrepreneur is thinking about a cool invention for solving problems somewhere around the house. Or maybe they're considering ways to source products for their online stores from China and amaze customers with service, speed, and quality.

Yet, it's not too often you hear about selling food online.

And since this is the case, there's a limited amount of information on learning how to sell food online.

Grocery stores are beginning to figure out ways to deliver batches of food to doorsteps.

The reality is- this has been around for awhile with Peapod, but companies like Amazon and Imperfect Produce are getting in on the action as well. Even more common would be less perishable foods, such as frozen hot dogs and beef, subscription boxes with trail mix (think Nature Box,) beef jerky, and the wide range of other foods you might be able to find at your grocery store.

I bet you might have noticed full meals prepared or separated into servings for you to cook later (like Blue Apron).

Regardless of the type of food that you plan on sending out to customers, there are conventional rules to be followed. The easy part is thinking about what to sell, and it isn't that difficult configure your own online store.

And now, I'll still go over those steps, but ensure that you pay attention to the legal and licensing aspects of the entire operation. Otherwise, you might end up in legal trouble and worst case scenario, behind bars.

So, keep reading to learn how to sell food online.

Btw, I've done a video version of the tutorial for you in case you want to hear my voice 🙂

YouTube video

Step 1: Legal and Licensing Aspects to Know Before You Learn How to Sell Food Online

how to sell food online   

The regulations for selling baked goods, non-perishable goods, or just about any type of food online is a little tricky. The main reason behind this is because it completely depends on where your kitchen is located.

Confused? Well, in simpler words, the rules I mentioned earlier varies based on regions.

However, there are some general rules you can follow that I'll cover here.

Before we get started, you need to know the basic laws behind selling food online.

For instance, any person in the United States who plans on selling food out of their home (whether it be online or by going to trade shows or street markets) needs to follow the Cottage Food Regulations. You can learn more about those, but we also recommend completing a Google search for your state's Cottage Food Laws.

We suggest reading through your state Cottage Food Laws (because they all vary,) but most of them follow the same basic principles:

  • You must have proper storage for all food, cold and dry.
  • You're not allowed to have pets in your kitchen.
  • You need a state business license.
  • You must obtain zoning clearance and all needed permits from your local government.
  • You're required to have a kitchen inspection at least once a year. This is done by the health department.

When questions arise, you should reach out to your local health department and the local Department of Agriculture. In fact, it's a good idea to do this regardless. As for those selling in the EU, there's a whole different set of laws you need to think about.

What About Permits and Certification for Selling Baked Goods?

Now that the primary legal parts are done with, it's time for you to consider which permits and certifications you need for your company.

As always, it depends on where your kitchen is located. That said, we recommend getting the following:

    • Go through some sort of food handling training to become a certified food handler. This type of training teaches you how to properly handle food, at which temperatures to store at, at which temperatures to cook at, how to wash your hands and dishes, and much more.
  • Get a local permit for your kitchen. This often involves reaching out to your county or other local government. You need to check with them to make sure that your home kitchen meets zoning and food safety laws. If your home ends up not meeting the requirements you'll have to find a commercial kitchen.
  • License your business in the state. This licensing can usually be done on the SBA website. Most of the time you're not technically allowed to make a sale online until you register with the state.

Step 2: Find a Reputable Supplier

Yes, you might be making your meals or food products from scratch, but at some point, you may have to reach out to a supplier for the ingredients.

Since the food industry has so many shady companies (where you might not get what you order,) it's essential to track the supply chain before you commit to a supplier.

The most reputable suppliers are listed on reputable directories (imagine that!) We recommend starting with the Ingredient Supplier Directory for the US. You can also find several other directories online for other countries.

Once you select a few suppliers that match up with your ingredients needs, begin looking into their certifications and supply chain. Making connections is a big part of this, but you can typically ask for references and browse the internet to see if, say, an organic provider has the right certifications.

In addition, you can always start out producing small batches with food from Costco or a similar warehouse store.

Step 3: Consider What Your Packaging and Labeling Is Going to Be Like

Want more regulations? I have some for you.

Did you know that it's extremely important to get your food labels right?

According to US law, every food product should have labels and a complete disclosure of the ingredients. You should also have net quantity, the weight of all ingredients combined, and a mention of the name and location of the producer (most notably your company and the supplier).

You should have this labeling on your packaging and in your online product descriptions. This way you're following the law and your customers won't keep asking questions.

When making your ingredients lists, start with the largest quantity ingredients first and work down from there. You should also highlight specific food allergens that might affect people such as peanuts or soy beans. Tools like HubSpot allow you to create contact forms for free. All that customer information then gets logged into a CRM that will make it easy for you to manage your contacts and engage with them by sending personalized content.

When shipping your products, non-refrigerated products usually only need a label of some sort that states “perishable” or “fragile.”

However, if your food requires some sort of refrigeration or the food items are altered in some way due to heat or cold, it's essential that you find a shipper that offers climate controlled shipments. This way you'll have a happy health inspector and customers.

Step 4: Set Up Your Online Store

We mentioned that the online store is one of the easiest parts of selling food online. That's true since you don't have to be a computer genius or coder to setup your site. In fact, places like Shopify, BigCommerce, Square Online and Squarespace, all have everything you need to launch a website.

We're going to use Shopify for this example, but we recommend checking out some of the top ecommerce platforms to make a sound decision. Each of them has their own pros and cons.

As a jumping off point, go to the Shopify theme store, then select the Food and Drink industry.

how sell food online - shopify themes


This reveals all sorts of free and paid themes, many of which are designed just for certain industries, while others can be customized to fit any type of company.

For instance, let's say my company wants to sell cookies. I'm going to opt for the Focal theme since it fits my needs perfectly. It costs $170, but this is one of the only costs you have in the design area of things. And you also have the option to choose a free theme.

This is a beautiful theme with a slider, collection galleries, email subscription forms, and social media links.

After you choose your theme and signup for Shopify all you have to do is add your products and connect the payment processor of your choice. All of your products can then be purchased for the price you set. What's more is that things like hosting and domain names are all handled through Shopify, so you won't have to think much about the technical aspects of your business.

Doesn't that sound simple enough?

Buy or prepare the food, take snaps and add them to the cart! And then, you're almost done with half of the work!

Step 5: Start Marketing For Foodies

Okay, so let's assume that your online store is ready. It doesn't end there.

In fact, we're only getting started. This step can turn out to be a nightmare because it takes effort and understanding of the various processes if you're a newbie to online marketing.

But, have no fear. Here are some tips.

When marketing for your food business, much of it can be done through local markets and street fests. However, the online work should all start with your email list. This way you can start grabbing customer information right from the beginning.

In addition, we recommend launching a food or recipe blog, where you occasionally share recipes your customers can make with the ingredients you sell on your site. This not only provides content for your blog, email newsletter, and social media pages, but it's a great way to recommend your products.

Social media marketing is great, but coupons, blogs, and local events are key for food sales. Some people are going to stumble upon your recipes and blog posts by chance, and that's a great way to get the word out.

Let's Sell Food Online!

Now that we've gone through the rules, laws, regulations, permits, and design aspects of selling food online, you should be ready to get creative and start making money.

Have you ever tried to sell baked goods? If yes, what kind of food did you choose and which platform did you use?

It would be cool if you can share the strategies you adopted.

If you have any further questions on how to sell food online, please let me know in the comment section below.

Feature Image by Nahid Hossain

Joe Warnimont

Joe Warnimont is a Chicago-based writer who focuses on eCommerce tools, WordPress, and social media. When not fishing or practicing yoga, he's collecting stamps at national parks (even though that's mainly for children). Check out Joe's portfolio to contact him and view past work.

Comments 10 Responses

  1. Quick question! We’re starting out our company and we want to register our business. We’re a little confused as to which category does online food selling fall. We’re guessing under e commerce-retail. Correct me if I’m wrong 🙂 nonetheless, this article is an excellent guide for us starters! Thank you in advance.

  2. We want to make dog/cat treats. They will be freeze dried. Do all the kitchen requirements remain the same?

    1. There is only one state in which you can sell pet treats or food through cottage food laws, however none are valid for online sales. That goes the usda food and drug admin. And they are required to be made in a commercial kitchen.

  3. Great article.
    I wonder what the rules & regs are if you want to import non-perishable European food like sweets and candies…?

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