5 Ways Micro Market Operators Can Avoid Trouble With The Health Department

February 23, 2017

Health inspectionMicro markets are an exciting revenue source for operators. However, health departments don't always know how to license or inspect them, which can lead to over regulation. Micro markets are too important and profitable a service segment to leave to a "nod and a handshake" approach to licensing, so it's important to get the details and educate yourself about what needs to happen at each location before installing a micro market. Use these guidelines to get help avoid trouble.

• Be proactive

Don't wait to be "discovered" with a micro market in place of a vending machine at your location. That will alienate the health inspector, cause bad feelings and could result in a troublesome relationship with the health department. Instead, be the one to reach out. Perhaps the county or state you wish to place the micro market in already has guidelines. If it doesn't, this is the time to see what type of licensing they do offer and what might fit the best. Educate yourself about what they are concerned about in food establishments and how you could best educate them about what a micro market is and what is reasonable within the business model.

• Prepare to educate

Not every health department will understand what a micro market is and the food safety risks (or lack thereof) involved in its management. Therefore, it is important for a micro market operator to get accurate information to the health department. Give examples of how it is similar to a food vending machine and convenience store, but also about how it is different, such as no open food or raw food that needs to be cooked. Offer to take members of the department or inspectors on a tour of a micro market or show them a video about the system. Don't be afraid to explain how a specific regulation or practice would not be realistic for a micro market, especially when it was intended for another type of business. Be prepared with talking points that address their specific concerns, such as transporting food safely, ensuring the appropriate temperature in an unattended location, monitoring for tampering and regular cleaning.

• Showcase safety features

Many of the concerns health departments and inspectors will have will relate to food safety. Explain the regular cleaning routine micro market drivers go through and how it matches existing food codes, such as section 4-202. 11, of the Food Code. Create a list of items that are checked with each service which likely includes checking food for signs of damage or tampering, expiration dates, recalled items, etc. Show the written procedures on transporting food and ensuring the proper temperature from warehouse to delivery, how it adheres to food safety protocols and how drivers are trained. Don't forget to highlight the special food coolers available. Explain how your food cooler determines the temperature and then will lock if the temperature drops below appropriate levels. Make sure to include what procedures take place after a lockout happens.

• Consider realistic license fees

While some municipalities do not yet have a micro market guideline, which means operators are able to simply pay vending machine fees for each micro market, this will not continue. If an operator is part of the dialogue on creating the micro market food safety and inspection guidance, he or she can also help come up with an appropriate fee. The inspection needs will be different for micro market due to the open, unattended concept, so the fee will be higher in order to cover costs. Rates in the area of $100 to $500 have been mentioned as appropriate, depending on the state. Operators will then have to built these rates into the pricing of the micro market products as with all the other costs of doing business.

• Stay calm and ask for help

When a health department tries to force a micro market into an existing license or is not able to craft a specific set of guidelines, it can be a real challenge for the micro market operator. It can mean hundreds of pages of documentation that are not always relevant to the micro market or location. Operators have struggled with this and become extremely frustrated. Stay calm, but don't give up. Keep explaining and educating the health department on what a micro market is and isn't, in order to help them craft better guideline. Utilize industry experts such as Larry Eils, NAMA’s health and safety knowledge source partner, who is already working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to see how the association can put micro markets into the food code. This would create a federal guideline for all to follow.

Contact your state vending association too as many are already fighting for proper guidelines. Recently, the Indiana Refreshment Providers Association (formerly Indiana Vending Council) have fought to get important micro market guidelines passed. Share your experiences with other operators and find out how they handled different health department situations.

Micro markets continue to bring excitement and new opportunities to the vending industry. Stay ahead of some of the challenges by being in contact with your health department and fighting to fair food inspection and safety guidelines. It will create a stronger industry in the long run.