To be clear, food licensing requirements vary by state. The information below covers our experience and our members' experiences specifically with the Virginia Commonwealth government.
Your licensing requirements are fully dependent on what you make. So, lets go by category.
1. Baked goods/non-hazardous food items. Virginia has excellent cottage laws for brand new businesses looking to get started. If you make cupcakes/breads/cookies (and more) you are permitted to make them from your home and sell them at farmers markets (excepting if you live in Arlington and Alexandria jurisdictions). This is a great way to start without adding overhead into your budget.
A word of caution, however...from personal experience, you are likely to run out of room very, very quickly. Plan your startup funds to include overhead by no later than month 3 if you are interested in growing as quickly as possible.
Once you are ready, you will require licensing from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Commerce (VDAC). Sometimes you can get your home licensed to produce but, again, space and equipment are always an issue.
2. Catering. Due to time/temperature/sanitation requirements, it is never a good idea to make ready-to-serve meals from your home. No counties in Virginia permit you to do so. This is important because if you try to do so, you cannot get insurance on your company (and, even if you could, if there was a food handling incident your insurance wouldn't cover it because you are working illegally). Don't do it. Save up money enough money for at least 3-6 months of kitchen overhead and startup fees and join an incubator that can help you with proper licensing.
3. Prepackaged Meals. Ok, this one is a little more challenging. If your desire is to sell prepackaged meals to grocery outlets (or any other reseller) AND your meals contain animal protein, you will require USDA inspection while cooking. This is an expensive and time consuming process that we do not recommend for new companies. However, there is an exemption in the USDA regulations for direct-to-consumer sales that states [paraphrased] if the consumer is buying directly from the manufacturer, USDA inspection is not required. So, find direct sales outlets--delivery and subscription services are popular--at least in the beginning.
4. Drinks. In Virginia, this is also handled by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Commerce. You may be required to take a course called the "Better Process Control School" that will help you understand dangers and mitigation of spoilage/foodborne illness with shelf stable products.
There are always exceptions and opportunities, no matter what you would like to make. If you have further questions on what it would take to put your specific idea into production, contact us today.