The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

October 9, 2012

Health department takes aim at unlicensed eateries in oil fields

By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News & Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Oklahoma State Department of Health and its county offices are cracking down on an increasing number of unlicensed food vendors catering to the booming oil and gas industry.

“With the oilfield companies increasing and the oil boom going on in this area, there are a lot more people wanting to cater to the oilfield,” said Todd Hamilton, registered sanitarian for Garfield County Health Department.

Hamilton said many entrepreneurs are looking to cash in on the growing demand for catering at remote well sites, where oilfield crews are either too far from or exceed the capacity of local restaurants.

What might be a good opportunity for an entrepreneur and a needed service for oilfield workers can turn into a bad situation, Hamilton said, if the food vendor isn’t licensed by the Health Department and operating under proper health standards.

“What we’re trying to cut back on is people just preparing food in their home and then taking out to well sites without the proper equipment,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said improper food handling practices, inadequate equipment and improper food temperature management all can lead to bacteria introduction and growth in food, and can lead to serious food-borne illnesses.

And those illnesses, Hamilton said, can cause serious economic losses for employers.

“Foodborne illness resulting from improper food preparation by an unlicensed food service operator could be costly in lost production time,” he said.

An OSDH press release on the issue indicated almost 130,000 hospitalizations occur annually in the United States due to foodborne illness, with the average cost per incident topping $77,000.

Hosting unlicensed food vendors on well sites could have other implications for the companies involved.

“Oil companies should recognize many insurance companies require using licensed food service facilities, and they could encounter legal risks using unlicensed food caterers,” Hamilton said.

As for vendors caught selling food without a license, Hamilton said the fines can add up, making the $350 license fee “pretty minor in comparison.”

County health officials don’t have the staffing needed to make daily inspections of all the ever-changing oilfield sites in their districts. But, Hamilton said the Health Department gets a considerable amount of help from properly licensed caterers in identifying unlicensed competition.

“The ones who have spent the time and the money to get licensed and do it legally through us, they’re usually willing to let us know if someone’s operating out there without a license,” Hamilton said.

The reason, he said, is simple: “It cuts down on their profit if someone just shows up and starts serving food out of their van.”

Tedra Stiger, owner of the mobile catering business Road Dawg Cafe, said it’s not uncommon for “fly-by-night” competition to show up at well sites and even public venues.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” Stiger said. “They’re everywhere ... everyone’s trying to get in. A lot of times, they just pop up. Most of them don’t stick around long in one place, and they move on pretty fast.”

She said the unlicensed vendors cut into her business, but with the oilfield booming, there’s still enough business to go around.

Stiger saw an opportunity in the booming oilfield and got into the mobile catering business two months ago.

Now, she spends her days selling burgers, tacos, burritos and philly cheesesteaks to hungry oilfield workers.

“Some of these guys don’t get off work until late, and the rural towns around them close down early, and a lot of them don’t get food if they don’t get off before 7 p.m.,” she said.

Keeping up with customers’ demands may be a challenge, but Stiger said working with Hamilton to obtain her Health Department license was easy.

“He told me what was expected so we knew what to look for before we approached it,” Stiger said. “He told us what we needed to do, and once we got that done, he came out and inspected us. It wasn’t a hard process at all.”

Stiger said she determined from the beginning to run her business according to the regulations.

“We wanted to do it right and do it for all the right reasons,” she said. “I don’t want to undercut anybody else myself. I wanted to do a good job of it and do it right.”

While unlicensed vendors have been on the rise, the number of vendors like Stiger who seek proper licensing also has increased alongside the oil and gas industry.

Tina Alemao, consumer protection division director for OSDH, said the number of licensed mobile food vendors in Oklahoma has almost doubled in the past year, growing from 383 in 2011 to more than 700.

Alemao said licensed mobile food establishments meet the same health standards as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

“Mobiles are really portable restaurants, and they are held to the same standards as our dine-in restaurants,” Alemao said.

In fact, while there may be health concerns associated with unlicensed food vendors, Alemao said licensed mobile caterers average fewer violations during Health Department inspections than dine-in restaurants.

Food inspection guidelines and results of Health Department inspections at both restaurants and mobile food establishments can be found on the OSDH website at food.health.ok.gov.