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Illegal makeshift restaurants pop up in Dickinson

The ND Cottage Food law defines permissible foods for sale as 'baked goods, jams, jellies, and drink products' while expressly confirming that cooked meats, poultry and fish were not permissible. (Stock)

DICKINSON, N.D. — Midwest hospitality aside, serving cooked foods for sale to the general public without health inspections and licensing requirements could result in hefty fines and may pose significant public health concerns, officials with the North Dakota Department of Health said.

The comments by the department come on the heels of multiple illegal in-home food establishments operating in Dickinson without prior inspection, a direct violation of the North Dakota food code.

Among the handful of newly opened illegal home restaurants in Dickinson are two burger joints, a barbecue place, a Cuban foods diner and a Hawaiian shack. Each began selling homemade foods to the public, for take-out or at-site dining, without completing the required prior health inspections. Many were openly being advertised to the public on social media — one even offering in-home day care services in their makeshift restaurant.

Owners and operators at contacted establishments declined to comment for this article.

According to House Bill 1433, the Cottage Food Act, any direct producer to consumer sales of cooked food is illegal without regulation, licensure and certification through the health department. A North Dakota administrative code aimed at offering clarification for which cottage food products are authorized for sale was issued on Jan. 1, 2020, and further defined permissible foods for sale as "baked goods, jams, jellies, and drink products" while expressly confirming that cooked meats, poultry and fish were not permissible.

The rules were passed and are strictly enforced as a measure to keep the health and safety of consumers as the priority, benefiting both public health and legitimate business owners.

“First of all, it’s the law,” Kevin Pavlish, environmental health practitioner with the Southwestern District Health Unit of the North Dakota Department of Health, said. “If you sell prepared food products, particularly meats or any products that are time or temperature sensitive, that is not covered by the cottage food law. Therefore, if you prepare and sell those foods to the public, it has to be done in a licensed or approved kitchen, and has to have a food service licence just like any restaurant would.”

Pavlish continued, “So these places that are preparing and selling foods in their homes without a license are doing so illegally in Dickinson.”

According to the Health Department, every food establishment must be operated with strict regard for the health, safety, and comfort of its patrons, including:

Having employees who handle food be trained in the food handler training courses on the safe handling, preparation and service of food; being located in an establishment that is well constructed, drained and provided with plumbing equipment according to established sanitary principles; being equipped with suitable toilets for the accommodation of its guests, ensuring that all garbage and kitchen refuse is kept in watertight containers with tight-fitting covers to prevent decomposition; being equipped with operable windows during the summer months with screens adequate to keep out insects; restrictions on being used as a sleeping or dressing room by any employee or other persons.

According to the Health Department, these requirements were not inspected or verified at the establishments in question and raise serious concerns for public safety.

“We don’t know how they are preparing the food. Is it being done properly, or is there a risk of foodborne disease?” Pavlish said. “We’re not in the business of going after and punishing people without investigation and attempts to correct the issue, but we were made aware yesterday of some of these in-home facilities in Dickinson and we basically began reaching out to them and let them know what the law is. If they don’t discontinue to provide those services, it would be a Class B misdemeanor and they could be charged with operating a food service business without a license.”

Pavlish continued, “We hope in these instances we won’t have to go that far, and that we can work with them to discontinue the business or go through the process that every other restaurant does, but time will tell.”

Restaurantgoers have resources at their disposal to determine if a food service facility is legal; complete copies of restaurants’ most-recent inspection reports are posted online on the Health Department website.