Do You Need a Food Handler's Permit?

Posted by Lilly on January 31, 2013 at 6:45 PM Comments comments (0)

One of the sweetest statements you will ever read begins like this: "[Such and such] is pleased to inform you that you have been approved...".  And so began the lettter I received yesterday from my Health Department informing me that I had been approved as a retail food entity within my county.  The only part left of this 2-step licensing process will be to have my pushcart physically inspected for compliance in early Spring.

However, the Health Department is rarely so benevolent or devoid of restrictions.  It turns out, on page two of the letter, that my approval is conditional.  Most of the conditions are easy enough to abide by.  They are:

  • My establishment license is for take-out only. (This one is kind of laughable since I'm mobile.  Can you imagine a mobile sit-down restaurant?  An RV, perhaps?)
  • There is no seating or eating permitted in the food establishment (thankfully, that doesn't pertain to me, personally, as I fully intend to sit AND eat while I run my cart!)
  • My plans are approved without a food preparation sink. (And thank heavens for that!)
  • Retail sales only - no food preparation is permitted.
  • A full-time certified food handler is required within 6 months of establishment's opening date. (Wait.  Hold on.  What!?)

I was a bit surprised by that last one, since it was the first mention that I might need to obtain what is known as a Food Handler's Permit.  Here's what I learned and what you need to know about this often-required certification/permit.

What is it?

It is yet another permit that you may be required to obtain before you can begin selling Italian Ice.  This certificate shows the Health Department that you, or one of your workers, has had formal instruction in proper methods to ensure that you won't get your customers or employees sick via unclean hand or utensil washing, improper serving practices, poor food handling and a host of other ways. 

Course & Testing

The course will go over the correct, hygienic ways to wash your hands, sanitize your utensils and other serving equipment, as well as how to properly serve your customers their food.  It will go over safe food temperatures and avoidance of cross contamination.  You will learn the hows and whys of working with and serving food, not that Italian Ice carries many inherent dangers, but worker practices can contribute to contamination.  Here is a list of topics covered in the course: 

  • Food Safety Awareness
  • Foodborne Illnesses
  • Food Safety Hazards
  • How Food Becomes Unsafe
  • Potentially Hazardous Foods
  • Proper Food Handler Hygiene
  • Potential Health Issues
  • Handling Ready-to-Eat Foods
  • Cross-Contamination
  • Time-Temperature Control
  • Storing Food Safely
  • Safe Food Preparation
  • Cooling and Reheating
  • Cleaning and Sanitizing 

Upon completion of the course, you will take a test.  If you successfully pass the test, you'll be given your permit to then take to your local Health Department as part of their licensing procedure.  Certification can last anywhere from one to five years, depending on your Health Department rules, at which time you will need to retake the course and exam to be recertified.  It's important to realize that, though the Health Department requires this permit, you will be financially responsible to cover all class and the testing fees.  Again, depending on your Health Department's rules, you may have to get more than one person in your Italian Ice operation certified as a Food Handler, and one certified person will likely be required on-site for every shift of work.

Where to get it?

So how do you go about starting this process?  Well, first go to your own Health Department and inquire about whether you need this permit at all.  If you can convince them that you sell no potentially hazardous food, you might not need to obtain this certificate.  But if you do, your Health Department will provide you a list of course locations or certified trainers.


So what if you get your Food Handler's permit in your own county, but you later want to attend an event on the other side of your state?  Would you be required to get another Food Handler's permit for that specific county?  Don't assume that you would automatically be able to enter that other event.  This is where you need to educate yourself about reciprocity.  Simply stated, reciprocity means that the approved food handler's permit you hold may be accepted by other Health Department jurisdictions and locales.  If so, no additional permit would be required.  Some states do have statewide reciprocity (Texas, for instance).  And other states are toying with the idea.  However, it is uncertain whether all states do, so you'll need to make a call to your local Health Department.

What to Watch Out For

There are many online commercial courses and testing sites that would love for you to buy their courses, only for you to find out later that they are not authorized or accepted by your local Health Department.  This is why, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's so important to go to your own Health Department first and get their list of accredited trainers and course locations.


Finally there's this lovely thing called an exemption, also called a waiver.  It's not offered by all Health Departments, but it's always worth a try.  By requesting and filling out a simple form, you can ask that you and your Italian Ice workers be exempt from having to obtain the Food Handler's permit.  If you can show why you shouldn't have to get this permit, usually because you don't sell any potentially hazardous foods or that you can implement safe alternative practices, you may be able to avoid all this and just get selling!  Be sure to ask your HD for this possibility, as they usually won't just offer it to you.

Here's your chance to share your knowledge with us.  Have you found that your county, town, or state requires a Food Handler's Permit, or had you even known about this before?  What are some ways you can get around it?  Some vendors just need to have more than one disher on board their cart, extra dishers and/or must wear gloves while serving to avoid the permit. 

The Neverending Commissary Search

Posted by Lilly on July 9, 2012 at 2:05 PM Comments comments (0)

I've read a few sites that say, if you find a good commissary, do everything in your power to keep it.  Don't rock the boat, and be sure not to bite the hand that feeds you.  Still, no matter what cliche you follow, the need to find a new commissary may arise sooner than you'd like.  Just because you have found your commissary doesn't mean you should stop searching forever.  Keep your eyes and ears open for all new possibilities, always. 

I recently had the bottom fall out of my business when, after arranging negotiations and getting documents together, I finally submitted my plan review to my Health Department to get that glorious license.  I thought that enormous hurdle was behind me, until a week and a half later, my Health Department notified me of the revisions and additional information I would have to provide in order to wrap up the plan review and move on to my cart inspection.  All of the requests were very simple fixes, until I got to the commissary part.  Though I had provided my commissary's state license, my Health Department wanted their city license, too.  And when I visited my commissary people to get a copy of that, they couldn't find it.  Worse, since it's from the City of Philadelphia, they were in no way inclined to spend an entire work day muddling through bureaucratic red tape to get a duplicate license for me.  And just like that - POOF! - I no longer had a commissary.  But there are other reasons your commissary can disappear, many of which have nothing to do with you: 

  • They could decide to raise their fees, pushing you out of being able to afford them 
  • They can sell or go out of business
  • They can simply decide they don't want to have you taking up time and space in their facility
  • They may lose their own license
  • They may get a better offer from another vendor
  • ... and many other reasons

Without a commissary, you will lose your own license and have a major disruption in a business that is already riddled with seasonal time constraints. 

But I just want to share two things you can do to find a commissary.  The first, which I've mentioned before, is to place an ad on Craigslist.  Detail what you need, and how little space/time you would require since you're not a vendor who cooks anything.  You've got nothing to lose by having a free ad out there for restaurateurs and commissary owners to find.  And be sure to headline how you will be able to help them by providing easy income in the form of monthly rent.  From my own experience, I can attest that I was contacted by one person who needed kitchen sharers right in my homebase.  However, the rent was substantially high for a new business owner, so I passed.  Still, my ad helped, and I made a new contact in the street vendor industry.

Next, while in Craigslist, search "commissary" in the ALL FOR SALE area.  Here is what I found recently in my own Philly Craigslist listings (see below).  And yes, I found my new commissary, a great licensed, inspected, and approved operation located in Philly that has bays for 10 pushcart vendors, complete with sinks, freezers and even electric plugs in each bay for those who require refrigeration.  I paid for a six-month lease, which I probably won't use this year, but it will hold my spot for next year.  And knowing how difficult it is to find a commissary, this makes good business sense for me.  Best of luck!

Be sure to check out the Commissary page!

Another Great Week in Italian Ice Startup

Posted by Lilly on May 23, 2012 at 8:25 AM Comments comments (0)

As I write this, it is midweek, but already I've accomplished a lot of my weekly goals in starting up my Italian Ice pushcart business, and I wanted to share those accomplishments.  They will be steps any Italian Ice vendor will need to take to get their business up and running too.

Most importantly, I'm excited to share that I found my commissary!  It was actually right under my nose.  My Italian Ice supplier, which is fairly close to me, has agreed to be my commissary.  And yesterday, I visited them to have them sign the Commisssary Agreement Letter.  A few weeks back, I'd spoken to a representative of my county Health Department who said that, if he had a dollar for every person who's asked for help finding a commissary, which is THE hardest part of starting up an Italian Ice pushcart business, he'd be rich.  I'm actually quite glad no one disclosed this piece of information to me earlier, as it might have deterred me from attempting to start this business.  But I need to share that sometimes we overlook the obvious.  It's a natural partnership.  In exchange for me buying Italian Ice exclusively from them, and for a manageable monthly rental fee, I have my commissary. 

Now it's on to another hurdle.  I've begun the process called the Plan Review.  This is the document that must be filled out for your Health Department to then schedule an inspection and ultimately award you a license.  Thank goodness I went to college, because this is very much like writing a term paper!  Though, again, I don't wish to scare or deter anyone, it's a very detailed document, some parts of which are straightforward and easy to fill out.  But in one particularly laborious section, I need to create ammendments detailing my operating and cleaning procedures, along with my proposed menu.  This is where I need to be very specific, detailing the use of bleach at the right percent solution to sanitize my cart and utensils.  And I need to clearly map out the procedures I will implement to make sure nothing on or within my cart is contaminated.  It's also where I provide information on all of my equipment and whether it is NSF certified, or at the very least "smooth, non-porous, and cleanable".  Of course, it helps very much that the words of my Health Department supervisor ring in my ears every so often... she said "No one gets turned down.  If it's not right, we give it back to you to fix it."  So, while it may not be a one-time shot, because she also said that no one gets it right the first time, it's just something that I need to get through.  For the most part, I'm in the clear now.

And finally, today is the day my logo gets finalized, which allows me to move forward now on business cards, screenprinted T-shirts, and most importantly, the vinyl wrap graphics that will go around my cart.  I ended up using an online company called LogoDesignGuru.com, though I can't quite say whether I recommend them.  Their website certainly seems promising, but my own results with them were underwhelming.  Still, give them a perusal to see if you think they might be a good fit for you.  You auction for logo and design services at whatever dollar amount you choose ($199 minimum to start), and designers from around the world send you drafts attempting to win the "pot".  It can allow for a wide variety of options if you are fortunate enough to get a designer who is either very talented and a visionary, or one who takes great direction from you. 

So, I still have today, Thursday and Friday to keep plugging along on this 10,000-piece puzzle that is starting an Italian Ice pushcart business.  But I can honestly say, I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel... just in time for some fabulous, hot weather. 

Choosing Your Italian Ice Business Name

Posted by Lilly on May 9, 2012 at 8:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Yet another fun part of starting up an Italian Ice pushcart business is coming up with the business's name.  Some people just use their own.  Some people make up a name.  Some people hold a family meeting and vote on which relative's name will be chosen and hope not to ignite a family feud.  I, myself, started down the voting route, but found it unfair that I would choose one of my childrens' Italian names and leave the other child forever seeing their sibling's name all over the business.  I was very fortunate that one night, while drifting off to sleep, the idea came to me to combine my kids' names into one.  And as luck would have it, the name is an actual Italian girl's name, Gianella.

So, coming up with the name is the fun, creative part.  But registering that name with your state government can be another experience altogether.  You see, the federal government created a law that any business which is not using the owner's legal last name in the business name must file for a Fictitious Name Certificate, also called a "Doing Business As" name or DBA, for short.  Call it another Big Brother move on the part of the government or, as some suggest, it's a way for them to collect more money.  But, either way, it's yet another of those business requirements you simply need to do if you want to run your Italian Ice operation cleanly. 

My own experience with registering my Italian Ice business name has been very frustrating.  You see, I opened my business checking account somewhat prematurely, not realizing at the time that the bank would require my Fictitious Name Certificate number.  After a lot of work opening the account, I was then told by the supervisor that the account would be closed unless I provided a copy of that certificate within one week. But, let's face it, few things in life involving the government are accomplished in one week. 

So the very same day, in fact the same hour, I went home and filled out the paperwork for my DBA and sent it with the $70 fee to my Department of State.  Having spoken with them first, I was told it would only take between seven and ten days.  Well, I waited anxiously for over a week, and still I'd heard nothing.  When I called the D.O.S. to inquire about the status of my application, I was informed they had not received anything from me at all.  Lovely.  I was advised to send another application and another $70 check and to put a stop-payment on the first check.  So, I quickly filled out another application and check and sent them again, forgetting about the stop-payment.  I waited only four business days this time before I called them about it.

When I called, my business name was in the database and I was told I'd be receiving my certificate in the mail any day.  What a joy to hear that news!  That was until they told me the date they had processed it, and I realized it was my first submission that they'd processed.  That meant my second application would be arriving and be processed any day.  And surprisingly, if they received the second application, they would just go ahead, cash my check, and register my business name a second time!  And to correct that situation, I'd have to apply for a Fictitious Name Amendment, for yet another  $70.

As a side note, my state also requires me to advertise my new business name in two different newspapers, one being a general, wide-circulation paper and the other being a legal journal.  Of course, this will add more unexpected cost and time to the startup of this business.

I'm very happy to report, all ended better than that after speaking with a supervisor.  They would simply halt the second application when it came to their attention and send it back to me.  I'll have to hold my breath that all goes as planned.  But, in the meantime, I'm riding high on knowing that my business name has been approved and registered with my state.  I can now go to my bank and show them the certificate when it arrives.  But the best is knowing that I can begin selling Italian Ice very soon with the unique name I selected and hopefully make a name for myself in this business.

The Long, Slow Search for Commissaries

Posted by Lilly on May 4, 2012 at 11:00 AM Comments comments (1)

I've hit a wall.  After initially thinking that starting up an Italian Ice vending business in under three months was impossible, and then finding that it was actually doable (with very long days and hard work), and getting so darn close to the trophy, I have now come to a complete and utter stopping point.  I can't find a commissary. 

I have contacted over 30 businesses and organizations in and around my hometown, and no one has space, ability or permission to act as my commissary.  As it turns out, I am hardly alone in this position.  Online searches have led me to forums and advertisements for countless other food entrepreneurs searching out a commercial kitchen to rent.  My needs aren't even close to what they require.  I'm not preparing food, so I won't be using the refrigerators or any of the appliances.  I've been sure to state very specifically that all I need is water, sinks, shelf and freezer space and that I'll only need to use the kitchen no more than 8 times a month.  And still it's a barren wasteland of responses, one rejection followed by another.  If I had any reservations about going forward with this pushcart vending business, it would be now.

And yet, there are a few glimpses of sunshine that keep me pursuing my goal.  For one, there are other food vendors who have found commissaries offering much more than I need.  If they can do it, certainly I can too.  Maybe my adjustment needs to be in the area of expectations.  It's not going to happen overnight.

But I wanted to share these glimmers of hope with you that have been my driving force.  I wear a ring on my finger every day that states "Nothing Is Impossible".  And last night, in utter frustration, I let out a deep sigh and said loudly, "I've hit a wall."  My son who overheard me and sensed my upset, immediately replied in a Scottish accent, "When you hit a wall, you push through it!"  I was floored.  It's my favorite line from the animated movie The Adventures of Tin Tin.  He is right.

Today, while I started my day with a continued series of rejections, I was reminded of another of my favorite quotes, which I see daily on my cell phone's home page.  It reads, "There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for me in its hands."  And one contact who got back to me, after replying that she couldn't help me with my commissary request, asked however, if I'd be willing to donate Italian Ice for their large upcoming 5K event.  The local Rita's, it turned out, committed to donating one tub.  I committed to two and also offered to arrive with my pushcart to scoop the ice.  She responded with delight and enthusiasm at the idea.  She's working with a very large synagogue in my town, and the enormous exposure for me would be an ideal way to kick off my business. 

Shortly after that little triumph, I received an email from another commissary requested contact.  Though she also said no, she then welcomed me graciously and with open arms into the local business family and suggested I join my Chamber of Commerce, for which she would get me a great, reduced price.  And she would also pass my request to local business contacts she knew to find me that commissary space.  I don't know where this one will lead, and if it was a polite reply accompanying a rejection, I'll take it, nonetheless.  The hope of help and the promise of assistance in pushing through my wall and also growing my business are all I needed to stay on track and keep knocking on doors. 

I'll leave you with another of my cell phone's quips...

"Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it's not coming." 

Make it a great day!  And be sure to visit my Commissary page located under the Getting Started tab for a list of links that I found during my search.  You can look by state for local commercial kitchen rentals.  I hope the information helps another Italian Ice vendor launch their business.

Italian Ice Vending and the Dreaded Health Department

Posted by Lilly on March 30, 2012 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (0)


One of the first steps in starting your Italian Ice business is - gulp - a trip to your local health department.  Many sites will disregard this topic, as will a number of vendors.  But the truth is, if you forego getting your health department license, you risk fines and loss of sales.  It's just not worth it.  In addition, most legitimate events that you'll want to participate in will require this license (as well as insurance).  


A simple trip to your local health department will provide all the information you need to run a clean operation.  Incidentally, it may not be called the health department in your area.  This aspect of your business may fall under your Department of Agriculture, environmental protection, or public health.  A Google search with your "state", "city" or "county" and "selling food" or "food license" should turn up the correct governmental site for your location.  But by all means, make sure to only use legitimate .gov sites, as other sites may give you wrong information or be offering services for which you'd pay more.  


I suggest you make an actual trip to your health department.  Too many people have written that they have called and not heard back after a while of waiting.  Why delay the startup of your business, when a visit will give you a chance to pick up informative leaflets.  And, as happened with me, it provided for an impromptu face-to-face with the supervisor of the department, who gave me everything I needed and even suggested ways I could speed up the process or get around some of their restrictions (legally!).  She also gave me valuable advice, requesting that I provide them with my cart specifications before ordering it.  That alone could save ice sellers thousands of dollars and enormous headaches.  Anxious vendors will often find companies wanting you to buy their carts right away, with no regard for health department requirements. Can you imagine having your cart delivered, the excitement of getting started selling, only to learn that your cart doesn't pass health inspection?  And now you have to beg the cart company to let you return the unit, which they might, at your enormous cost of shipping it back to them?  No, thanks!


In my case, I learned that I needed to have an onboard handwashing sink.  This is a small sink for the purpose of washing my hands to prevent food contamination.  The water that this sink provides needs to reach a temperature of 100 degrees or more.  Upon hearing this, of course, my heart sank, because in my online search for carts, I hadn't seen any with a sink.


In speaking with one successful vendor, Pat of Mita's Italian Ice in Oregon, she has learned that her own state will soon require the handsink too.  Another company in South Carolina decided to create their own carts and sell them to fulfill this same requirement (Magnolia Carts).  This seems the way of the future, and while some vendors may be grandfathered in with non-sink units, in the future they will have to comply with new units they purchase having the sink or toting some type of portable sink with them to events.


As hard as it may seem to do, make the health department your friend.  This is one aspect of the business you won't be able to avoid, and having them on your side can only help.  They are there to serve and protect the public, not to prevent you from making a living, though it may feel that way.  Look at this from the standpoint of the customer.  We've all seen or eaten at establishments that seemed unsanitary, and I'm sure you can recall the feeling you had. Follow their codes and suggestions, complete the necessary paperwork (cart specifications, plan review, etc.) and with a fresh license and passed inspection, you can sell your ice successfully without fear that you're doing anything wrong, concentrating on great product and fantastic customer service.