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For years, San Diego breweries have invited local caterers to set up food stands in their tasting rooms, so guests may purchase hot food in between swigs. Typically, no money changes hands between the two parties — the caterer earns money from the brewery’s customers, who consequently spend more time and money drinking beer.
A county ordinance passed late last year, however, could spell the end to this symbiotic relationship. An amendment to the county’s Department of Environmental Health regulations that went into effect on Jan. 14 outlines new permit requirements for both caterers and tasting rooms wishing to do business in this way. Catering companies will now be required to procure a Direct-Sales Catering Permit, while tasting rooms will need a newly created Host Facility Permit.
The new ordinance was approved by the county Board of Supervisors following a 2016 pilot study that observed retail catering practices at breweries, wineries and private events. The study of 25 sites concluded that at least half of the caterers violated the California Retail Food Code, which guides the county’s food safety standards.
Nearly a third of the caterers were found to be in violation of the code’s cold holding standards, which requires cold perishable items to be kept at or below 41 degrees. Most violations were attributed to the use of ice to maintain cold temperatures, rather than refrigerators. Roughly 50 percent of the caterers studied did not have access to a hand-washing sink. Now, the county will require portable refrigerators, and portable handwashing sinks.
County spokeswoman Alex Bell said the ordinance is intended to “provide a roadmap on how to move forward.”
Another spokesman, Gig Conaughton, said the new protocols are the first of their kind in California. “San Diego is leading the state with this level of flexibility for food service options.”
Until now, businesses have been operating at breweries with a standard caterer’s permit, which follow state requirements, backed up by county inspections at a commercial kitchen where food is prepped.
The county points out that such permits were intended to cover finite periods of food service at private catering events — two-hour dinner service for a fixed number of diners at a wedding, for example. Direct-sales catering, on the other hand, serves food to a variable number of customers, often over a four- or five-hour period. A spokesperson said the caterers were “losing the standard for temperature control,” by opening and closing their coolers for hours.
Marilyn Morrison, owner of Emme’s Catering, said she was bothered by the new rules initially, but recognizes the protocols needed updating to regulate businesses that don’t follow the rules.
“Too many folks have been running like it’s the wild west,” she said.
The county is allowing a six-month grace period for businesses to get their permits in order. When that expires at the end of June, Morrison will have to decide whether to invest an estimated $3,000 needed to qualify her business for the new permit.
The dilemma Emme’s and other caterers face doesn’t so much reflect what the new permits require of them, but what they require of the breweries. To obtain a Host Facility Permit, breweries must provide a three-basin sink, a mop sink and a hand-washing sink — the latter despite the rule that caterers provide one of their own. Most breweries in San Diego would require costly structural changes to comply. Several smaller breweries told me they don’t have space to install everything, even if they could afford it.
Financially, breweries would be subject to nearly $1,000 for county consulting, plan check and permit fees, plus any applicable building or inspection fees from other city departments — all before installation costs.
Though food trucks, too, sometimes set up outside of breweries, they operate on a distinct license that requires no additional facilities. That means breweries could avoid dealing with the new permit by inviting food trucks instead of caterers. But food truck owners operate with higher overhead. Therefore, it only makes sense for them to serve at larger breweries, or at special events attracting larger crowds. For smaller breweries in the county, food trucks typically aren’t warranted, and won’t commit to showing up unless they are sure of a crowd. This is why pop-up catering has developed into a niche business at breweries in particular.
Cenk Aydin says roughly 75 percent of the clients of his year-old catering business, Local Kebab, are brewery tasting rooms — almost all of them repeat customers. Aydin had not yet heard about the new regulations in late February.
Aydin emigrated from Turkey two years ago and moved to San Diego to start wholesaling chicken rotisseries made with local poultry and Turkish spices — an old family recipe.
“It took nine months to start this business,” he said, describing the process of getting his catering permit, which included taking an exam to qualify for a food handler card and securing a commercial kitchen. If tasting rooms don’t secure the new permit, and stop hosting caterers, “then I’m done with my business. It’s that simple,” he said.
Over the past year, Morrison said regular engagements at local breweries have comprised 60 percent of Emme’s weekly bookings. The boost in regular sales emboldened the entrepreneur to quit her day job and focus on catering full time. But most brewery clients have told her they will not apply for a Host Facility permit. “So far I have three maybes and about 10 hell nos,” she said. Three weekly clients have already canceled future engagements.
Out of 10 breweries I contacted, only two said they are likely to acquire the new permit. One is AleSmith, — one of the county’s largest and most successful breweries. Two significantly smaller breweries said they will start providing menus and delivery options. The others won’t commit until they know how many upgrades will be required to qualify for a permit. Part of the problem, they say, is there’s confusion on this point. It turns out, meeting the county requirements alone don’t qualify a brewery or winery to be a host facility; city agencies must sign off too.
“Based on the city where the host facility is located,” said Conaughton, the county spokesman, “there may be other applicable requirements from other regulatory agencies, such as the wastewater authority.”
“That’s the game-changer for everybody,” said Kris Anacleto, who manages the tasting room at Booze Brothers brewery in Vista. “Certain water districts are saying that there needs to be a grease trap.”
Booze Brothers hosted a February meeting of the San Diego Brewer’s Guild, where a county representative outlined the new rules. One major concern that arose: grease traps. Some breweries have been instructed to install them before their local wastewater authority will sign off on their permit. Anacleto said that on the whole, he and other brewery reps support of the need to enforce food safety standards. But several balk at the expense of installing grease traps to capture food waste, because “none of these food vendors or caterers are dumping anything down the sink.”
“The pop-up vendors are never inside,” said Sarah Trigg, a beertender at Kearny Mesa’s Societe Brewing who works with caterers. “It just makes no sense for us to incur that kind of cost.”
Brewers are also nervous that the standards won’t be uniform – there are upward of 20 different wastewater agencies throughout the county, and it’s not yet clear which have been advised on the new county ordinance, or how many will insist on grease traps.
Those at the Brewers Guild meeting were ultimately worried about how it might impact business if they can’t invite caterers to serve food on-site.
“It definitely adds to the overall guest experience,” said guild president Jill Davidson, “and it does encourage them to stay and enjoy themselves when they’re hungry.”