What health departments expect from new restaurant owners

What health departments expect from new restaurant owners

There can be many hidden surprises when you buy a used car. The same can apply when you buy a restaurant, bar or food cart. Aside from all of the legal and financial details, there are important aspects relating to the local health jurisdiction that should be clarified before you “sign on the dotted line.”

A simple phone call to your local food safety program staff can really save you a lot of gray hair and tens of thousands of dollars. Too many assumptions are made with this type of purchase. Here are a few tips to help you make a more informed decision before you jump into buying an existing food service business.

The food service operating permit held by the current owner is rarely transferrable. Although most of these permits have an expiration date, a change of ownership requires that the operating permit be put into the new owner’s name before you take over.

A change of ownership will often trigger the requirement for a facility to come up to current food safety and building codes. And don’t rely on the “grandfathering” of out-of-code equipment and/or structural components, as many recent code revisions have deleted this concept. You need to take the time and call the applicable agencies for their policies. For the food safety and sanitation issues, this would involve your local county program. This link will help you find them. http://www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/food/localcontacts.html

You also may have many ideas to upgrade or remodel your new investment. Usually a fresh coat of paint, some new tables and different tableware won’t require any type of review or approval process, but there are many changes that would require pre-approval with a formal plan review, a variance and/or a HACCP plan.

Examples include:

  • A change of menu that would impact the spatial and equipment needs of the business;
  • Implementing specialized processing methods such as smoking or curing food, using food additives, doing vacuum packaging/reduced oxygen packaging (including sous vide), having a shellfish tank, custom processing meat and/or sprouting;
  • Rearranging, removing or adding sinks, restrooms, dishwashers or ice machines;
  • Adding a walk-in cooler;
  • Adding outdoor seating and/or cooking on a deck or patio;
  • Opening up a drive-thru window;
  • Beginning to serve alcoholic beverages;
  • Changing your outside signage; or
  • Adding a banquet room or off-site catering.

There are many regulatory agencies that have jurisdiction over these segments of the hospitality business. It is best to be proactive and find out which ones are involved with your business. Always start with the local program offices.  Make contact with them, and proceed with the full picture in mind. It is also a good idea to keep a tracking log of your conversations with the date, person, agency, phone, email and requirements stated. This will be a very helpful reference as your project proceeds.

Republished from Washington Restaurant Magazine. This article’s writer Larry French is a Public Health Advisor for the Food Safety Program, Washington State Department of Health. He has spent more than 20 years with the regulatory side as an educator, inspector and investigator. That was preceded by 23 years working in both the grocery and restaurant industry.