You're a great cook. You've always dreamed of opening your own café or catering business. And in an economy that has left so many of us downsized and dirt poor, turning your delicious gumbo into tasty greenbacks looks like an easy and fun way to weather the storm. So what's the catch?
"If you are preparing food and you want to start a home business, there is potentially a risk there," said William E. Keene, who heads up the State of Oregon's Office of Disease Prevention and Epidemiology. "If you are a commercial person you have a legal responsibility. "If you are just making food for your family, then if something gets contaminated you only make your family sick. But if you are selling food to the public you can make hundreds of people sick."
That's why anyone who sells food must follow Oregon's Food Safety laws. They apply to every one of Portland's 2500 restaurants and 534 food carts – as well as every caterer, however small.
Food Detectives Investigate Illness Outbreaks
Keene and his team are food detectives. They follow up on reports of serious illness, asking questions and checking food handling practices in kitchens, warehouses and food factories across the state. He says most problems he sees can be avoided by following basic food handling rules: like washing hands, and properly refrigerating food. But sometimes it takes a food detective to figure out why people are getting sick.
Take the salmonella outbreak that was traced back to the Umpqua dairy. Only one person in a million among those buying the dairy's milk was getting sick. But the link was definite.
"We were puzzled because pasteurized milk is usually extremely safe," Keene said. The dairy workers seemed to be doing everything right. And, in fact, they were. But dogged investigators finally identified the source of contamination as a machine used to wash the cases that held milk cartons.
"It was the plumbing inside the pipes," Keene said. "So the milk was fine. It was the outside of the cartons that was getting contaminated, and people were occasionally getting sick from handling them."
The problem was quickly fixed, but it cost Umpqua plenty in recalled product, as well as bringing the kind of publicity no dairy wants. And the company was following all the rules. Restaurants and food suppliers who don't follow the rules face penalties such as: fines of up to $10,000, having their products condemned, and being closed down.
Food safety rules apply to small caterers, cafes and food carts – as well as to those large, high volume food suppliers. A team of four inspectors work to visit every eatery in Multnomah County at least once a year. And if you want to check out how your favorite café fared, you can see the inspection report online.
Food safety experts say the rules may seem strict, but the alternative is far worse. "People get really mad when their kids die from these illnesses," Keene said. "That's what we are trying to prevent. It's not a game. So that's why commercial establishments have to pay their license fees. We think it's money well spent."
So You Want To Start a Food Business? Here's What You Do.
- Register your business with the City of Portland within 60 days and file for an exemption at the end of the tax year. You won't need a business license from the city to open up – that doesn't kick in until you gross $50,000. You can sign up at Portland online.
- Anyone preparing or serving food should have a Food Handlers card. You can study the manual and take the test online. The fee is $10 and the card is valid for three years.
- Prepare all your food for sale in a licensed commercial kitchen. Caterers can rent space in a commercial kitchen or they can prepare food in a client's kitchen, but must not bring food from an unlicensed kitchen. Can you license your home kitchen? Yes, in theory, but it had better be a huge kitchen or a converted garage with separate space to rapidly refrigerate and safely store large quantities of food. You would have to comply with all kinds of rules including closed doors, no pets or children in the kitchen. And you should expect spot inspections at any time.
- Is a home kitchen less safe than a commercial kitchen? Food safety expert William Keene says it's all about the equipment needed to serve food in volume. Walk-in refrigerators, for example, cool food to correct temperatures more quickly than small fridges.
- Register your café, restaurant or food cart (officially known as a mobile food unit) with Multnomah County, pay the required license fee and expect an inspection. You'll need a temporary event license if you want to sell food to the public for even just one day. There are a few exceptions to that rule. If all you are selling are baked goods, such as cookies or candy, you won't need a license. You can sell coffee without a license – but you won't be able to offer cream with that.
- Pay the Fees. For a restaurant the minimum license fee is $495 for a cafe serving 15 people or less. That rises to $705 for dining rooms seating 150 people or more. For food carts, the fee is $315. For a one-day temporary event you'll pay $120.
- If the kitchen you are using is a new commercial kitchen that will cost you an extra $375 for a restaurant or $290 for a food cart. Make sure your kitchen is up to the required standards. Food carts, for example, are licensed to serve different foods depending on the facilities they contain for example, hand washing and water supply.
If in doubt, help is available from Multnomah County's "Sanitarian of the Day" a food safety expert who can answer any of your questions. Call: 503-988-3400