The upscale food-court atmosphere that prevails at so many farmers markets has prompted Jeffco health authorities to impose stricter regulations on food vendors selling items typically offered at restaurants.
Some small-business operators are complaining, and some are choosing to take their offerings elsewhere.
Vendors selling what are called potentially hazardous food items — such as burritos, tamales, pizza slices, hamburgers and salads — for immediate consumption must now submit a plan to health authorities first and obtain a $255 mobile unit license.
"Today's farmers markets are much more than they used to be," said David Hooker, retail food safety program manager with the Jeffco Department of Public Health. "It used to be more like a roadside stand that sold fruits and vegetables in a whole state. You didn't have to worry about it breaking down.
"It's not like that anymore. It's selling all kinds of potentially hazardous foods," Hooker said.
Temporary events, for which vendors are allowed to operate with minimal equipment, are a different matter. But farmers markets are not defined as temporary events, according to state retail food establishment regulations.
When Gene Kalesti of Gene's Pure Colorado (dressings and marinades) looked into serving salads at the Belmar Farmers Market in Lakewood on Sundays, he discovered he would have to buy a trailer, a refrigerator, a hand-washing system and a generator to power everything.
"Just to have a small unit with a stove and refrigerator could cost as much as $25,000," Kalesti said. "We are doing really well at Cherry Creek. (But) we live in Lakewood and really want to be in Belmar. A lot of our base is here."
Since he launched his small business last year, Kalesti has found a profitable niche making gourmet salads and selling them at various farmers markets, which he does in addition to selling bottled dressing in specialty shops.
A safety-conscious professional chef who formerly was executive chef at Green Gables Country Club before it closed, Kalesti has been working with a big commercial cooler and gel packs that keep the lettuce super cold, he says.
But he can't get a license to sell at a Jeffco farmers market without drastically upgrading his operation, which already includes preparing and cooking everything at a professional rented commissary, not a home-based kitchen.
Kalesti said he hoped he could sit down with Jeffco health officials and work something out, but Hooker said the department isn't backing down. Hooker said the letter announcing the stricter rules went out to vendors and market coordinators last October so vendors would have time to prepare and retool.
Most are going along with the changes, and the department isn't getting a lot of complaints. Hooker was not sure if any individuals so far this season had been asked to leave a market for not following the rules.
"Mobile units are supposed to slice and dice at the commissary,” Hooker said. “On site the vendor has to have electrical power, a hand-wash sink and catch basin, a refrigerator. … Essentially you've got a rolling restaurant, and you have to have the same equipment a restaurant would.
"We wanted to give people time. We were going to do it earlier in the year. But we thought, ‘Let's wait until the season is over.’ … Even the (market) coordinators are all for this."
In the past, the health department allowed providers to set up as "temporary food vendors" under fewer restrictions.
"Now we put this procedure in place,” Hooker said. “We checked with Colorado to make sure we are doing this right."
Denver County has different rules, which means that Kalesti can continue to operate as before using the cooler and gel packs if he stays at Cherry Creek.
New rules hurting small businesses, market owner says
Jay Sharpless, co-owner of Colorado Outdoor Markets, thinks the rules are penalizing hardworking families trying to cope with job loss by starting small businesses. Colorado Outdoor Markets operates the farmers markets at the Bergen Village Shopping Center and in Belmar.
Vendors selling Mexican food, latkes, crepes, hot dogs, Asian dumplings and fruit kebabs have left the Jeffco markets to go elsewhere, Sharpless said.
Having food trucks is not the answer, in his opinion.
"No food trucks is my deal. As soon as you go to trucks, you have a 20-foot bus, and it takes a way from the ambience," he said.
"Now they don't let you use ice in coolers. It has to be refrigerated. It's not like they are making a gazillion dollars. It's not like they are brand-name people," Sharpless said.
"Before it was coolers, some ice, rent a kitchen and have a hand-washer. The health department came by and checked the coolers, and you were good."
Contact Vicky Gits at email@example.com or 303-933-2233, ext. 22.
Types of Mobile Unit licenses
$115. Potentially hazardous foods. Pre-packaged. For example, cheese, eggs, frozen meat, pre-packaged burritos and roasted chilies.
$255. Unwrapped potentially hazardous food in individual portions for immediate consumption. Cooked meat (beef, pork, lamb), poultry (chicken, turkey, duck), fish, tofu and soy-protein foods, raw sprouts, cut melon, cantaloupe, milk, custard and dairy-based desserts, cooked pasta and potatoes, heat-treated plant food (cooked rice, beans or vegetables) and cooked eggs.
Uncut fruit and vegetables
Wrapped, non-potentially hazardous foods. Pre-packaged bread, granola, pastries and potato chips.
Contact Vicky Gits at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-933-2233 ext. 22