Micro markets have exploded in the industry. Whenever I ask an operator about what's new, exciting or contributing to growth, micro markets are in the top three answers. They are also expensive investments, which has some taking shortcuts or trying to slide under the radar. One area where this is happening is with food coolers and health department licensing. In the August issue of Automatic Merchandiser, due to hit your mailbox in a couple weeks, we discuss the reasons why opting for a locking food cooler is a good idea (preview: it guarantees a better experience keeping the micro market perception positive). As to licensing, that is where I think operators have an opportunity to turn a cost of doing business into a selling point of difference.
Market your higher fees
Most micro markets are governed by the local health department, which means there is a patchwork of requirements across the U.S. Health departments in some states, such as Texas, Ohio, and California, have already been progressive in establishing a special license for micro markets, which falls somewhere between a vending license and a foodservice license. The operators I talk to in these states confirm the license is more expensive than a vending license. However, a few are also cleverly using the higher fee to set themselves apart.
When discussing micro markets with a prospective client, they focus on the license. They detail the requirements from the health department and how they meet or exceed those requirements. This is to ensure the best refreshment experience for the customer and to ensure food safety. That goes a long way with a human resource manager or facilities manager. Even if they weren't originally worried about the safety of the food being provided, knowing that the micro market operator is inspected and approved by a third party (the health department) is one more box to check under the "Pro" column when deciding on a vendor and allowing a micro market installation.
Educate the health department
But what about those operators who don't have a health department demanding more than a standard vending license? Well, for now you could slide under the radar. Or, you could get a seat at the table. At the last NAMA OneShow, I sat in a presentation about Best Practices For Health and Food Safety, where two health department officials discussed how the rules are made and what the industry can do when faced with the licensing of micro markets. The take away was communicate. Terri S. Williams, director of the environmental health division for the county of Los Angeles, Department of Public Health, talked about how the department had not heard of micro markets early on. They did not understand the system, and therefore wanted to lump it into an existing (and cost prohibitive) license. It took the operators in Los Angeles and NAMA to educate Williams and her staff as well as discuss what would be possible. For example, micro markets offer fresh food in sealed packages. There are no open, cooked foods, such as hot dog rollers. This affected how the market was to be inspected and therefore the licensing requirements.
"Talk to your health inspectors," Williams said. It's better to have a dialogue and create a standard that is responsible, yet effective than to fight an unrealistic requirement after the fact.
Your customers want to trust you. Show they can by promoting your food protocols and your licensing. Adopt it early on to make it a point of difference. If it's already a requirement, then use it to educate about the protocols your company uses to ensure a great refreshment experience. In the end, consider the long term. The more popular micro markets become, the sooner they will be regulated. Jump ahead of the regulations, get a seat at the table and be part of solution that keeps the food safety perception of micro markets positive and profitable for the industry.