Tuesday 23 April 2019

Problem Solver: Health inspector is being picky about home cooking

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Feargal Quinn

Q I'm producing a food product and was planning on working in my home kitchen. My environmental health officer says the product is high risk and that I must rent a professional kitchen. Other producers have not been subjected to the same treatment, and I feel it is unfair that he is picking on me.

A The food safety regulations have been very much simplified over the last decade. Part of this is a recognition that the production of artisan foods need to be supported in every way possible. This includes, in certain circumstances, allowing people to start their manufacturing in their own homes.

This approval is subject to your home kitchen being suitable and, critically, that the risk factors associated with your product and your kitchen are minimal. As a general rule, environmental health officers don't make life difficult for start-up producers - they want you to succeed and will usually provide as much advice as possible and exercise as much flexibility within the rules.

The key words in your question are "high risk". Where a product is deemed to be high risk, it usually means that once you produce the product, it is going to be consumed by the consumer in that form and, if it were to be contaminated in any way, could cause illness.

My advice is that you engage with an independent food safety consultant who will be able to give you impartial advice. Quite honestly, your EHO is probably advising you correctly and the difference from the advice your friends have received, and your own is related to the product.


Q I have started a new business producing innovative greeting cards, which I manufacture myself and sell directly through retailers and to some producers. The problem is I also have a full-time job and am beginning to struggle. Is there any advice you can give me as I am afraid to give up my full-time job?

A A lot will depend on the objective you set for the business. If you have set this up to be a hobby business that you are going to allocate a number of hours a week to and get some "pocket money", then you are probably OK to keep your full-time job and manage the business in your spare time.

If, on the other hand, the objective is that the new business will pay a salary and support you, you are probably going to be in almost immediate conflict. The new business will demand more and more time, which you will be unable to give it. There is a distinct possibility some customers will be annoyed they can't get ready access to you, and you will really struggle to drive sales as you won't be able to give it the appropriate time.

Talk to your Local Enterprise Office and request the services of a business mentor who will sit down with you and analyse where your business is at. You should also have a conversation with them about the possibility of qualifying for employment grants, which would help bridge that difficult period when you don't have enough sales coming in and need the salary from your permanent job. These employment grants are designed to provide support while you are building up the sales of your own business.

I am interested to hear you are working with distributors, and certainly it would be a good way to carry your sales faster. You will of course have to work hand in hand with your distributors and ensure you are out on the road with them, driving sales.


Q I have run into a bit of trouble with my business and owe Revenue a lot of money, and have defaulted on a number of payments. I can definitely trade back out of this situation but need some good advice?

A This is a serious situation. You need to immediately get professional advice if you haven't done so already. Your own accountant should have already explained to you the seriousness of your condition, and if they haven't done so, you need to urgently seek the services of a different advisor.

There is potential at any moment that Revenue could demand all the monies outstanding, which would in effect shut you down. While their objective would not be to close you down, they might have no choice if they sense you are not making an effort to resolve the situation.

It is encouraging that you say that the business can trade out of this position. The important thing now is that there is total clarity from here on in, and that Revenue are given a clear road map on how you intend to trade out.

You also need to talk to all suppliers you owe money to and ensure they will stay on board and back the business. Share with them some of your plans to recover from this situation to retain confidence here too.


Q I manufacture a product and to date have been selling it on the Irish market. I'm just about to start exporting and wondered what supports are available for a business like mine?

A The answer will be related to the size of your business and this isn't clear from your email. I will therefore give some general answers which will hopefully guide you in the right direction.

Enterprise Ireland are the core government agency responsible for supporting businesses to export, and they have criteria surrounding their supports which means the business must have potential to have more than 10 staff, turnover in excess of €1m, and have the potential to export. Potential is the key word and they might well engage with the business at an early stage.

It is more likely that if you are at early to mid-stage, that your primary contact should be with your Local Enterprise Office. They may already be assisting you in some way, and any conversations you have should be directed at them, as they will be best positioned to assess next steps. Your Local Enterprise Office do have some limited supports which they would be able to offer you in the early stages of exporting. As an example, if you were attending trade shows they may be able to grant assist some of the cost associated with this. They may also have some specialist mentors.

There is also one word of caution with export, which I'm sure you're already very focused on: don't make the assumption that your product is going to sell in another country. Cultures are different; competitors can be much more aggressive; your brand will be unknown. All of these combined can create quite a challenge, so do make sure that you surround yourself with all of the expertise that you can, and possibly consider teaming up with a partner or distributor.

The positives could be that if the export markets open up, the scale and volume can be astounding. You could end up with overseas markets which are multiple times larger than your domestic market. Exciting times!

Send your small business questions to himself@feargalquinn.ie

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