Health cops halt free donuts

MAY 19, 2010


CAMARILLO, Calif. – A hardware store has been banned by county health officials from giving free coffee and donuts to customers unless extensive building upgrades are completed – a requirement that other businesses have not been made to follow.

Family-owned B&B Do-It Center was told by the Ventura County Environmental Health Department that it needed to construct a built-in sink and drainage system near the front of its store in order to offer the freebies, even though other businesses such as banks and car dealers have not been given such a requirement.

“We didn’t go to every bank in the county and that’s not our priority to look at every coffee pot,” said Elizabeth Huff, health department program manager. “We haven’t gotten a complaint from anywhere else and it wouldn’t be a priority,” she said.

B&B, which has given away the refreshments for 20 years, landed on Huff’s radar when a customer filed a complaint several months ago that pork was being distributed in the store. Employees had been testing out a barbecue grill and cooked meat on it, which was passed around to customers.

“They don’t have a health permit to do that,” Huff said.

As a result, inspectors visited the store and saw that free coffee and donuts were available for customers inside the store. Ventura County follows the state health code, which requires that food served to customers have a sink with a drainage system, and an approved ceiling and wall covering.

“We had this incident, which opened the door for them to look for other citations,” said Larry Collins, who owns B&B with his father. “It seems like the barbecue is understandable. But did they have to come out and take a dozen donuts and the coffee pot? It seems to be overkill.”

While the inspectors were at it, they didn’t like Collins’ linoleum in the bathroom even though it was five years old and he was told to get a permit for sales of candy and soda. The inspectors returned to the facility a few weeks later to see if he was complying with their wishes.

Collins decided to forgo spending more than $10,000 on building upgrades and thought of another way to serve his customers. Legally he is allowed to bring in coffee in hot pots from an outside vendor, so he started that practice. And the donuts can be served if the bakery wraps each one in plastic, an option Collins said he will probably start pursuing.

The event caused an uproar in the community after the incident was chronicled in the local paper, the Ventura County Star.

When the furor didn’t die down, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors decided to discuss the matter in a board meeting. Supervisor Kathy Long, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, said she wanted to address the news item that had “spun out of control with wrong information.”

Long added: “It’s a state ordinance that has been in place for decades and nothing is changed there. They haven’t changed how they do inspections and they don’t intend to move the inspections of coffee and donuts to the top of the priority list.”

Still – one thing is clear. Collins has to comply with these regulations while others do not, simply because their businesses haven’t been visited by health inspectors.

“So, when somebody out here in their department offers someone a donut, we don’t have a problem, right?” Supervisor Peter Foy asked, in only a half-joking manner. “An auto dealer or somebody has a donut out there, we don’t have a problem with that, right? We have someone who was cooking something but also selling something?”

Collins said he understands that inspectors have a job to do, but the matter has been a nuisance to himself and his customers. It’s another example of government red tape.

“It’s the customers who lose out,” he said. “To me, this is a common thing to do in a small business – to make customers feel welcome with coffee and donuts.”

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