In this “Explore” series, each post will take a look at a different home-based food business idea. We'll also share links to resources and to posts about starting and running that type of business.
On today's menu? Selling freeze-dried candy.
Freeze-dried candy is a modern marvel, a product of the growing home market for freeze-dryers, combined with folks who love to experiment with their machines. It's also taken off as a hot product for the small businesses and food vendors who can produce it.
Why freeze-dried candy?
If you’ve ever had freeze-dried fruit, and noticed its enhanced sweetness, along with the puffed, crunchy texture, you’ll understand the attraction of freeze-dried candy. Add in the fact that you can generally only buy it from someone with a freeze dryer, and you have a hot product: customers are actively looking for anyone who can sell it to them.
The internet adores anything different and good, and this phenomenon fit the bill. It is a popular item in online videos, where TikTokkers test the crunch and flavor of their favorite candies that have now been transformed into tasty puffballs.
Curiosity leads to a demand for products, and many food entrepreneurs jumped on the opportunity immediately, and successfully.
In any freeze-dried candy group, you'll read stories of sold-out vendor shows, freeze dryers being paid off quickly, and sellers who now have multiple machines producing and are packaging candy nonstop, who are still unable to keep up with the demand for more.
Will it be a short-lived trend? It's hard to say, but for now, it's on the rise, and definitely an interesting opportunity in states where it is allowed as a home-based food business!
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So, how is freeze-dried candy made?
Candies are processed inside a freeze-dryer, which places them under a vacuum while applying a bit of heat to help them expand. Running a batch of candy through the machine takes a few hours, to ensure that any moisture is completely removed. Once done, the candy needs to be stored in airtight packaging, to keep the texture and prevent any reabsorption of moisture.
Certain candies work well for this process: Freeze-dried Skittles are probably the most well-known example, along with other chewy candies like saltwater taffy. Caramels and marshmallows will overperform, and often need to be cut up into smaller pieces – otherwise, they can expand to fill your machine!
Gummy candies can be tricky, depending on their ingredients. And anything too hard will not expand as well (lollipops, peppermints), although there are some tricks that can help (like preheating in the household oven for a few minutes before adding to the freeze-dryer).
Successfully finished freeze-dried candy will have a burst of intense flavor, with interesting texture, and usually a crunch.
Freeze-dried candy can also be great for those who have braces or dentures – when completely dried, the light, airy texture is not sticky – even caramels and Jolly Ranchers will puff up into crispy clouds that melt in your mouth.
Is selling freeze-dried candy legal in your state?
You’ll want to research your state’s cottage food law on this one. Since the home freeze-dryer market is relatively new, not all states have a reference point for how to regulate products made through this process.
This is complicated by the fact that the freeze-drying process is typically used for many foods that aren’t shelf-stable: even though your state may allow you to sell candy under cottage food law, they may also have a blanket rule against anything that requires “freezing” or freeze-drying, unless you have a commercial license.
It's worth noting that, in the case of freeze-dried candy (which is even newer to the market), you aren’t technically freeze-drying most of your products – you’re vacuum-drying them, and using the ice in the freeze-dryer’s chamber as a cold trap, to keep any removed moisture from reaching your vacuum pump.
Do some research on the freeze-drying process before contacting your state or local officials, so that you’ll be equipped to answer questions about your business idea, and how you’ll be working with shelf-stable candies.
If you do live in a state with a fast rule against freeze-dryers, you can process most candies in the same way with a vacuum oven (consider adding an external cold trap to protect the pump) – and if you weren’t planning to use the freeze dryer for other foods, this can also help you save money on equipment costs.
What is the freeze-dried candy market like?
Throughout 2022 and into 2023, freeze-dried candy has continued to explode in popularity. The same is true for interest in the idea of selling freeze-dried candy.
Currently the market continues to expand to meet demand, and larger commercial companies have not yet moved into the space.
What has kept more people from jumping into the market?
While there are some places where you’ll have more competitors in the market, especially at vendor shows, overall there are still customers to reach, who haven’t yet tried freeze-dried candy, or who might be interested in your unique product line.
Some possible reasons for gaps in the market:
- General unfamiliarity with freeze-dryers These machines are typically built for scientific and lab use. The home market is primarily for long-term food storage, where lightweight, freeze-dried food can be shelf-stable for up to 25 years. (If you’re looking for a multitalented machine, you’ve found it: it can be used to produce a wide range of freeze-dried products to sell, from herbs and seasoning mixes, to freeze-dried pet treats.)
- The cost and availability of home-sized freeze dryers Prices range from $2400 to $5,000 or more, depending on the model and size of the machine. Even if you’re ready to make the investment, the regular food-preserving customer market has continued to grow as well, so demand is high for the machines. This has sometimes created periods of limited supply, since there aren’t many mainstream brands competing, yet.
- Business models Many sellers may be pursuing the same customers: either at vendor events, festivals, or through Facebook marketplace, and it can seem like the local market is saturated. Finding unique ways to reach an audience, either through advertising or by selling in unusual places, can give you an advantage in reaching new customers. Look for opportunities, and you may find them in unexpected places!
- State and local regulation As we mentioned above, some states don’t allow, or don’t yet have regulations for, food or candies processed in a freeze dryer. Even where it is allowed, the unknowns can make it difficult or intimidating to get started with a business that is going to require some investment.
The number of people becoming interested in selling freeze-dried candy is growing fast, so you may want to start establishing your place in the market if this is a business you decide to pursue.
Space and requirements for a freeze-dried candy business
A freeze-dried candy business won’t take much space, when you’re first getting started. You will need a sturdy workbench, table, or shelf capable of supporting a heavy freeze dryer and pump.
When setting up your production space, consider the noise of running the machine for hours at a time, and whether that will bother you or other family members – larger machines and vacuum pumps will make more noise, but running a mid-sized freeze dryer and pump should be about as loud as running a window air conditioner.
You'll need some space to load up your trays before putting them in the freeze dryer, and storage space for ingredients or unprocessed candy.
You’ll also want room to package and label the candy, with space for bags, containers, and possibly a heat-sealer and label printer.
If your state has specific kitchen requirements for a cottage food business, or for certain food processes, make sure you can meet those before investing in expensive equipment – some states can even require that an appliance like your freeze-dryer be a stainless steel model.
Equipment and supplies you'll need
Your main piece of equipment for this business is going to be a freeze dryer, along with a vacuum pump (these are usually sold together). The most well-known brand in the US is Harvest Right. They offer home freeze dryers in a range of sizes, as well as pharmaceutical and commercial models.
StayFresh Freeze Dryers is a newer company. They currently offer their freeze dryer in one size, which we've heard is comparable to a Harvest Right medium or large, and is priced at about $3000.
If you're located in Canada, there's a new option on the horizon: D-Freeze Freeze Dryers, from Peak and Prairie Industries Corp. We don't know much about them yet, but they've gone through their first round of product testing, and the information on their website looks promising.
If you intend to sell only candy, you could consider using a vacuum oven, instead of a freeze dryer. These are less expensive, with more shelves and temperature control options. You would also want to look into purchasing a separate cold trap, to capture moisture and prevent damage to the vacuum pump. To use the cold trap, you’ll most likely be purchasing dry ice, so consider that when comparing processing methods.
To get started making your product, your supplies can be as minimal as the trays that come with the freeze dryer, and some parchment paper to line them with.
You can start off with packaged candy from a local store, or buy larger containers from bulk stores or online sellers. Later, you might want to buy from wholesalers.
You can also freeze-dry home-made candy, which will help make your product line unique.
What about packaging the candy?
For your finished products, you’ll want to have airtight packaging, to prevent the candy from absorbing any moisture. Heat-sealed mylar bags are popular options, and deli containers work well for larger, more fragile items – freeze-dried candy is easy to crush, so adapt your packaging and storage methods to minimize damage.
Although freeze-dried products do well in long-term storage, candy packaging is made for display, so there is a higher chance of moisture reaching your product. Do periodic quality checks, and adapt your production schedule to keep your on-hand inventory fresh.
You’ll also need to follow your state’s labelling guidelines, which usually call for (at minimum) a net weight, ingredients list, and your contact information (a physical address may be required), as well as any allergen warnings.
Freeze-dried candy sales
There are many business models that would work for selling freeze-dried candy – and again, when starting out, these will depend on what your state allows under cottage food law. Here are a few ways you could sell your freeze-dried candy:
Sales from your home – These could either picked up by the customer (if allowed in your neighborhood and you're comfortable with it) or delivered to them.
Booths at vendor events – From school events to fairs and festivals, this is a great way to get your product in front of customers.
Farmers markets – There may be eligibility rules; find out if you qualify to be a vendor.
Selling to retailers or other businesses – This could be through consignment (they display your products, and keep a percentage of what sells) or as a wholesaler.
Your own store front or permanent space in a vendor mall, or mall kiosk – If your state does not allow “retail” sales, find out if offering candy from your own shop space would still be considered direct-to-consumer sales.
Online sales – Local or in-state sales made online may be permitted in your state (for example, on Facebook Marketplace), although you may still need to hand the product over to the customer, in person.
As your business starts to grow, you might be interested in more options, such as online sales to a wider area, or shipping out of state. For changes that fall outside of your state’s cottage food regulations, you’ll want consider having a commercial food business. This also applies in states with a cap on how much money a cottage food business can make each year.
More things to consider about this business:
- No two businesses will be the same. This is a business with room to experiment – ingredients matter, every machine will have its own quirks, and anything from the settings you use, to the humidity where you live, can affect how a batch of candy will turn out.
- There is no wrong time to start. Holidays are a prime time to sell candy – from Valentine’s Day to Easter to Halloween to Christmas, candy is always in season.
- Get creative with your products! You could specialize in homemade candy recipes, custom candy orders, special flavors, or holiday mixes. You can also combine candy with other gift items or packages, if you have another business.
Where to learn more about selling freeze-dried candy:
The idea of starting a freeze-dried candy business can still feel a bit like the Wild West – would you be considered an outlaw in your state?
Official state sites are the right place to get the official word on what you can legally do with your business, but to learn more about the process of freeze-drying candy, and about the reality of starting a candy business, you’ll want to talk to other sellers, both in person and online.
There are several great freeze-dried candy groups on Facebook, some specifically for beginners:
- Freeze Dried Candy Makers
- Freeze died candy making.
- Beginner's Freeze Dried Candy Making & Selling !!START HERE!!
And if you're interested in using a vacuum oven, there's a group for that, too: VACUUM OVEN CANDY MAKERS & a little freeze dried stuff too.
Connect with other candy-makers in these groups, including those in your state who have dealt with regulations. And follow along as brave individuals try out the candy that “can’t be done”.
Freeze-dried candy makers have created a generous community, where you learn from others as they share their experiments and progress. Just remember to return the favor of sharing your own experience, so that the knowledge and opportunities will continue to grow.
What does this look like in the wild?
Interested in seeing how it's done? Check out our post on How to Make Freeze-Dried Skittles. It covers the steps that can be used to freeze dry most candies.