Last year, Pat Connors and his staff at Pastiche Modern Eatery served food at 27 off-site events, mostly charity fundraisers. Not once, he says, did they get a visit from a Pima County Health Department inspector.
But in March, during the Tucson Festival of Books at the UA, an inspector came calling with a list of do's and don'ts that Connors says he'd never seen before. Pastiche didn't have a temporary food-establishment permit that was evidently required, and was missing a few required items.
"All of that was easy to take care of, and we did, but it was still the first time we'd been through a screening process," Connors says.
Typically, Connors says, he and his employees show up at off-site events with a hand-washing station, a fire extinguisher and other items to assure that everything is safe and sanitary. Most of the food he serves at off-site events is prepared in advance, in his restaurant's commercial kitchen, where he already has a health-department permit and is inspected three times a year.
"Considering we've never seen a health inspector before (at off-site events), it seems obvious that enforcement has not been consistent," he says. "And it was obvious (at the Book Festival) that they haven't reached out to restaurants as much as they should."
What bothers Connors isn't just what he considers a lack of communication; he says he's concerned about how this all may affect the off-site events he participates in, such as the Boys and Girls Club fundraiser at La Encantada, and Puttin' on the Dog for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.
The cost of the temporary food-establishment permit is $68—and a new permit is required for each event. When Connors multiplies that by 27 (the number of events he participated in last year), the cost is $1,836.
"This is a situation where we are giving away food, not selling it," Connors says.
At local charity functions, there is usually a one-time admission fee for event-goers—often between $50 and $125 per person—which offers an evening of noshing and drinks at booths from many of the city's better restaurants.
Connors shared his concerns with friend and fellow restaurateur Jonathan Landeen, owner of Jonathan's Cork, who is equally involved in local charity events. He even hosts a yearly chili cook-off to raise money for kids to go to camp.
Like Connors, Landeen wondered why a restaurant which already holds food permits needs another layer of regulation.
"We may lose events or make it more difficult for restaurants and organizations, during a time when we need to make it easier because of the economy," Landeen says.
He worries about that the health department's renewed regulatory interests will impact the charities that the restaurants are helping.
"Most of us don't get involved in this to go out to the state fairs and sell our food," Landeen says. "We're doing this at the request of the (organizations)."
Landeen says he can't help but think the county's own financial struggles are playing a part in the sudden crackdown.
Karen Martin, a Pima County Health Department division manager, says the point of requiring restaurants to get temporary food permits isn't to over-regulate or make more money. Instead, it's about the law. She points out that these rules have been on the books for years.
A similar issue between food vendors at farmers' markets and the health department (See "Growing Controversy," Jan. 10, 2008) emerged when health inspectors descended on local farmers' markets, issuing citations and reminding sellers that they needed a permit each time they showed up to work the market.
Vendors were told they could purchase a $48 permit for 14 days. Like Connors and Landeen, some business owners complained that they were already adhering to health standards and had current permits, because they prepared their foods in commercial kitchens.
Farmers' market managers began meeting with Martin and other health-department representatives, and everyone agreed to work together to re-examine the regulations. However, Martin says that work is on hold, and vendors are still required to purchase temporary food permits.
The farmers' market discussion also led the health department to look at how it was regulating food booths at community and charitable events. Martin says the county determined the guidelines needed to be rewritten to better communicate rules to food servers, restaurant owners and health inspectors. For example, Martin says, restaurant owners needed to be reminded that their booths should have better insect protection (in other words, netting) around the food-prep areas.
The guideline rewrites, made in February, were added to all applications and permit information, as well as the health department's Web site.
Martin says she understands why restaurateurs like Connors and Landeen are frustrated; however, the health department's job, as mandated by state law, is to protect the health and safety of the people. The permit costs help pay to send inspectors out, she says.
"If something goes wrong, there has to be some accountability," she says. "If it does, people will look to the health department to find out how we could have prevented it. They will also look at the restaurant, and it could damage its reputation," Martin says.
Regarding the restaurant owners' concerns about charitable events, Martin suggests that nonprofit organizations think about putting the permit fees in their budgets, just like they would pay for facility-rental fees or speaker fees when planning an event.
"Its part of the cost of doing business," Martin says.
While Connors disagrees, he says that he also understands the health department's job and the importance of protecting the public. However, he feels the sudden crackdown will make it harder for new restaurants and others who've never gotten involved in the community before to make that leap.
"It's one way we've been able to make a difference," he says.
Connors says he plans to serve food at future events, such as Puttin' on the Dog on May 1—and he doesn't plan to purchase a temporary permit.