Permitting: The epitome of all that is fun and exciting about starting a coffee roastery? Not a chance. Most likely, it will be or has been one of the most confusing and problematic parts of your journey. Yet it’s an unavoidable series of hoops through which every roasting business must jump if they want to remain on the right side of the law.
In Part 1 of this “Roastery Planning and Pitfalls Series” we discussed some of the variables involved in roasting equipment selection. In Part 2, we tackled the less exciting but just as critical subject of space planning. Today we move onto inspections and permitting, areas that can prevent businesses with even the best intentions to fail to get off the ground.
The main problem with discussing permitting is that requirements vary from municipality to municipality, and some may be redundant to the point of different inspectors on the city, county, and state levels all checking the same specs.
Since there are a plethora of agencies with oversight of roasting operations, simply knowing where to start can be a hassle. A good rule of thumb is to start with your local authorities and then work your way up the chain. Local inspectors will be responsive and directly involved with your work, while larger entities such as the FDA may take their time in getting back to you and finally showing up. The following guidelines will help get your wheels turning and ensure that you contact the right agencies and get the answers you need for your own unique project.
Any major construction project requires a building permit, although the definition of “major” may vary. For example, according to the city of Seattle’s website, “You probably need a permit in Seattle if your project involves new or changed property uses or construction or alteration of a building — even if you can’t see the alteration from the outside.”
“Probably” is not exactly a word upon which you’ll want to base the future of your business. Liberty Construction, a company that designs and builds hospital wings, offered some perspective on the situation: “No matter the project, large like our construction or as small as putting in a new wall, you should walk into the inspector’s office, ring the bell on the front desk, and talk to someone before thinking about hiring a contractor or buying a nail.” Bring pictures of your space and use imaging software or even simple sketches to show the changes you want to make. This can get you off on the right foot immediately.
If a municipality is not familiar with coffee roasting they may borrow requirements from a municipality that is. In such a case bring supporting materials with you to help write the rulebook. The good news is that if your roaster size is small enough, you may not require anything more than an application fee and to give a “heads up” to the agency in advance of the installation. Also, some space changes do not require inspection inside existing cafés. Yet the bottom line is that one should never make assumptions. Seek verification and confirmation at every major step.
Local health agencies, such as a public health department, require inspections. From place to place, requirements vary drastically and no codes are the same. For example, in many towns and cities, small roasters can get started in home garages, selling items online or to local cafés. These are called “cottage industries,” and are inspected by requisite health departments. In the state of Florida, title 333 Chapter 500.80 clearly states that a cottage industry of any kind “may not sell or offer for sale cottage food products over the Internet, by mail order, or at wholesale.” So much for dreams of roasting out of your home to fund those surfing lessons on Key Largo.
Health inspectors generally look for rodent droppings, the cleanliness of your roasting area, buildups of dust or spider webs, and the mandated health and wellness posters. There is no easier way to address these items and to learn how to prepare than by directly calling the agency, requesting all the pertinent inspection information and getting the job done. Some agencies actually provide handy checklists.
For general preparedness, common non-negotiable needs include food grade storage containers and, for us burly roaster types, beard nets. Some states require ServeSafe or other certificates, even for coffee roasters. A handy mnemonic: When in doubt, clean it out.
Certain municipalities fall under local regulatory committees that function similarly to the federal EPA. Massachusetts has its own EPA (the Department for Environmental Protection), and the Puget Sound area has Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA). “No visible smoke” is the bottom line in this area, as Carol Cenci, senior engineer at the PSCAA explained. “The part that seems to throw people is the cooling tray. Smoke needs to be pulled through and into the afterburner,” said Cenci. Any passerby can call and report a roasting facility for the appearance of visible smoke, and agencies are required to investigate these reports. If you happen to discover a situation resulting in visible smoke, be sure to log the time and date it was noticed and the corrective actions taken to stop it.
Regarding afterburners, be sure to keep a log of temperatures your afterburner reached upon discharge and up to one minute after another roast has started. You may not be required to have one if your roaster below a certain capacity, although some agencies require afterburners regardless. Some also may not accept alternative solutions such as oxidizers, which can cause a delay in your project.
Says Andy Newbom of IPCoffees, “Do not forget about the FDA and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)!” And we concur. As of 2003, coffee roasting facilities must register with the FDA. With the FSMA act, this registration must be renewed every other year. There are no exceptions for the size of the business. The FDA now focuses on contamination prevention, and if a violation is found, requires corrective actions within a certain time frame. If the FDA visits your facility they will be assessing the safety of your products and materials, both finished and raw, and looking for things like rodent excreta pellets (REPs). Failure to register with the FDA will incur an inspection and possible fines, and you will start an already lengthy inspection and response process on the wrong foot.
It’s a good idea to maintain a checklist and conduct monthly self-inspections, as the FDA tends to be slow to respond and often seems to appear at your doorstep out of thin air. Their codes are some of the most confusing of all the agencies, although inspection guidelines and correspondence they’ve sent are all available to the public online. Search the web to learn what to expect, or simple call or email the FDA directly for guidance. It might be weeks before you hear back, but it’s also not impossible that they’d respond quickly.
Organic, Fair Trade and other certification inspections are meant to ensure that there is not cross contamination of products and that labeling requirements are met. Preparing for these is relatively easy. If you serve a certified product and a non-certified product, just make sure they never touch each other or the same equipment. Mark organic containers and equipment with green paint or tape, and always secure the certificates from throughout your supply chain, as a certificate for every step of the product’s life must be accounted for.
Some inspectors require you to create a structural barrier between organic and non-organic production and storage areas, although usually simple signage and due diligence will do. If you do share equipment, taking a reasonable amount of certified product and purging it through the equipment prepares it for organic use. Finally, if your product is certified you must carry the authentic, original seal of the certifying agency, not your own creative design. If you don’t use their basic trademarked logo, you violate your certification terms.
Dealing with the Inspector
The inspector, initially, holds all the cards. Some do like to wield the advantage and power that comes with their responsibility. It is also easier for some to say ‘no’ and leave you scrambling to prove otherwise. To deal with inspectors like this, it’s important to know when to challenge their findings and how to email the appropriate responses and codes, to ensure your plans are approved with minimum interpersonal or administrative friction.
It is not a question of if you will be dinged for an infraction, but when. When it occurs, your goal is not to give an inspector his or her comeuppance, but simply to minimize your build-out and installation costs by being prepared for the hurdles over which you’ll have to jump. Provide informed responses when citing laws and regulations. Address the demands and regulations associated with knocking down a wall or installing your equipment before you get started. If you wisely reached out to an inspection agency prior to starting and recorded the name of your inspector, you can reference them if conflicting requirements are presented by subsequent inspectors.
Photocopy your permits for your files, and post the originals in accordance with any inspector’s wishes. When submitting your materials for a permit, be sure to ask that the permitting agency also include with your permit some documentation including the names of the inspectors and any reports or other pertinent information. Keep these documents in a handy “I love my inspector” binder, which details your every interaction and can save you a headache when renewal time arrives or a surprise inspection occurs.
Every municipal, state and federal agency has laws and guidelines. Some are vague and may be interpreted differently by different inspectors. Receiving a “did not pass” or “this must be addressed” after an install has been completed is more than just frustrating — it’s financially destructive. But as far as disasters go, this one is very preventable by researching regulations, responding to infractions and denials in a timely and informed manner, and recording the names of people you have spoken with and the responses that they gave. Now go hang those permits on the wall with pride and do keep them dust and cobweb free.