The Rise of The Small Business Food ‘Preneur That Might Make You Sick

The rise in people selling meals from home is now becoming a concern for Food Safety Experts in the UK YBKBS Small Business Magazine
The rise in people selling meals from home is now becoming a concern for Food Safety Experts in the UK
So what did you treat your significant other to on Valentine’s Day? Breakfast in bed? A home cooked Sunday Lunch? A seductive Sunday Supper? Or did you buy from one of the growing small business owners who are cooking from their own homes and promoting themselves as a new local, small business?
Well, if you did the later, and haven’t spent the night being ill, it comes with a word of warning. There has been a “concerning” rise in food businesses operating out of people’s homes during lockdown, according to the food safety watchdog.
Marc Ford

Marc Ford

Editor-in-Chief, Business Media Owner, Business Coach, Author and Keynote Speaker. Works with over 100's of small businesses every year. Trusted by BBC TV and Radio, Channel 4, Mercedes Benz, Hitachi Capital on business matters.
Many of them are selling food through social media, putting further pressure on a hygiene inspection system that is under strain because of current global crisis. “Little food businesses are popping up like mushrooms in lockdown,” says Julie Barratt from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH). “There are rank outsiders operating off the radar, who think, ‘Oh, my mum can cook’, and confuse cooking with catering,” she added. 
Thanks to Lockdown in it's various tapes and sizes. we've become used to ordering food through Apps. But where is it really coming from?

Easy to Start But Now A Concern

They sell to local residents on apps such as Whatsapp, Instagram and Nextdoor, but many are failing to register as food businesses, meaning their hygiene arrangements are not checked by local authorities.

What is now a cause of concern is that even those that do register are often not getting an inspection – despite new businesses usually being a priority – because the system is struggling to keep up during the pandemic. Hygiene inspections ceased completely during the first lockdown and since then a scaled-back operation has focused on high-risk cases.

Local authorities are using video calls in a bid to clear the backlog. They allow basic issues to be resolved and reduce the time environmental health officers need to spend on-site. They could be used, for example, to ensure there is a separate sink for washing hands.

But these video calls can never be as effective as in-person, surprise inspections, says Ms Barratt. They are unable to reveal things such as ingredients past their use-by date, or rat-droppings under the cooker, you know the stuff that appears on Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares‘.

Indeed, a challenge posed by the new legion of at-home businesses is that even if a physical inspection is required, a 24-hour warning has to be given because it is a private address, so the surprise element is lost.

The Rise of The ‘New’ Small Business Owner in CoVid

Back in October? November we reported that the UK was looking towards a perfect storm, where people were being made redundant and setting up their own businesses. It seems attractive as because of lockdown restrictions, not having to have premises has made it ‘easier’ to do business. But with that comes a space that gets smaller and smaller with more and more competition.

In December 2020 over 13,000 new businesses had been registered compared to over 11,00 the previous year. 2,000 doesn’t seem a lot until you look at the data and see that at peek times in 2020, 18,000 businesses had been registered versus 11,000 the previous year.

So whilst we champion the rise of the small businesses in the UK, other small business owners need to begin to think more strategically about how they do business and as importantly, how not to cut corners. Many businesses won’t carry with them a health warning, but food and hospitality do carry consequences should people get ill, despite the best intentions of the new business owner.  

Resources are Really  ‘Stretched’

About 44% of new food businesses started since the first lockdown are home-based, according to a new centralised online registration system used by nearly 200 local authorities, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has revealed. The full picture will be clearer when all local authorities report their registration figures in the new financial year in April.

“The growth of at-home food businesses is a concern,” the FSA said. “Local authority resources are already stretched and many are finding it difficult to keep on top of the workload [these at-home food businesses] are generating,” says Michael Jackson, the FSA’s head of regulatory compliance.

Some people are starting food businesses from their home because they have lost work and need to generate income – including professional chefs who have been hit by the closure of restaurants.

Others are on furlough and have time to set up “side hustles”. Takeaway eating and the idea of cooking for neighbours in need has also become more common in lockdown.

As well as social media platforms, websites such as Olio and Cook My Grub also now allow this new army of at-home food entrepreneurs to find customers, selling everything from cakes to Sunday roasts.

The Rules Are There For Everyone

Every new food business must register before it starts selling food. Once registered with the local authority, an environmental health officer can visit in person and this eventually leads to an official food hygiene rating of 0-5 (or pass-fail in Scotland). The business can still trade prior to gaining its rating.

However, the rating is a vital tool for customers to gauge the safety of an establishment and can be a selling point.

Indeed, many new at-home food businesses that are well-run and take hygiene seriously are frustrated that they haven’t been able to secure a rating yet, due to the backlog.

“Our advice to people when ordering food online is to check that the business has a food hygiene rating and choose only those with a rating of 3 or above, this can be checked on our website,” says Mr Jackson of the FSA. “If a consumer has any doubts about a food seller or a food product, they should report them to the local authority,” he adds.

And here is a warning for the newest of small business owners thinking that this is a great way to make money in a lockdown, ”Where sellers do not follow the rules, they may be fined, imprisoned for up to two years, or both.”

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Business Coach, Author and Consultant. Has worked with BBC TV and Radio and Channel 4 on business matters. Trusted by Mercedes Benz, Hitachi Capital. Keynote speaker.