JACKSON – Salmonella, staphylococcus and E. Coli 0157:87 are just a few of the reasons that people searching for a caterer ought to make sure the caterer has a
license before they decide who to hire.
One-hundred-forty-seven caterers are permitted with the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), according to Charlene Bruce, director of food protection
for the state. There may also be additional caterers out there as well, though, who are permitted under a bakery or conventional restaurant if they do more than simply
cater. And although Bruce would not speculate as to the number of caterers in the state operating without a license, she did acknowledge that they do indeed exist.
State law requires anyone who serves food to have a food permit, which means caterers operating without a license – even those who do so for small events – are
Bruce said it is especially important that caterers be licensed by the state because they specialize in high-volume cooking, which, if done improperly, can lead to the
sickness or even death of many people.
Improper cooling is the number one cause of food-borne illness, and it is just one of the things the MSDH addresses when issuing food permits to caterers. Other
things the state addresses are hygienic practices, cooking temperatures and the sanitizing of equipment.
Twenty-five percent of all food-borne illnesses can be partially attributed to poor hygienic factors, Bruce said, the main one of which is hand washing.
By having a food permit, or state license, caterers are under the regulatory authority of the MSDH. Those with permits must be certified managers by having passed a
nationally certified food-training program.
Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, said it is virtually impossible to tell who is operating an illegal catering business in the state
because there are so many caterers who do small, unpublicized events.
“It seems like every week we get phone calls from different parts of the state from professional, licensed caterers about things over the weekend,” he said. “(A permit)
indicates that they understand the right way in which to handle food. That’s first and foremost.”
Jim Bonney, an early-career journalist turned restaurateur, is now working with the restaurant association.
“In four hours, you can literally kill somebody with a weakened immune system,” Bonney said of caterers who handle food improperly. “Catering is most dangerous
because it’s off-site.
“Food has a four-hour period, and that’s a cumulative time. At the end of four hours, the bacteria just multiply. You square it each time, and in a matter of hours you
have a toxic concoction. That’s the reason you see food service people walking around with thermometers all over the place.
The other issue for caterers who operate illegally deals with the sales tax.
“We’ve found many unlicensed caterers don’t collect and pay sales tax,” Cashion said. “That sales tax could mean the difference between getting and not getting a
caterer. That’s why it’s important that all food service operators play by the same rules.”
Tax specialist Charmin Tillman, with the Mississippi State Tax Commission Office of Audit and Compliance, said caterers, or any business for that matter that wishes
to, can go to one of nine district offices throughout the state to pick up a tax package and get a sales tax number. There is no fee involved with the process for caterers
unless they operate out of their home. Caterers who do operate out of their homes are required to pay a cash bond set by their district based on estimated taxes for
If caterers are found to be operating illegally through an audit, they owe the Commission money plus any interest and penalties.
“If we do catch you (not paying taxes), it can be unpleasant,” Tillman said.
Those who do not pay their taxes but charge them to clients are committing fraud, and the punishment for such an offense can be jail time or a 50% penalty, depending
on the severity of the case.
“I know we do find businesses every day, not just caterers, who are not registered,” Tillman said. “It’s a daily occurrence. Rarely do they charge tax, but we do find
unregistered taxpayers on a daily basis.”
If a caterer is avoiding paying sales tax to the Commission, Tillman said to her that means the caterer could be avoiding other licenses as well.
“Those things are important when you’re dealing with food preparation and the integrity of the caterer,” she explained.
Mildred Brown, owner of Mildred’s VIP Caterers, began her business out of her home because, she said, she “thought everybody else was doing it.”
But when the MSDH came to her house with a warrant for her arrest and a $10,000 fine, she learned otherwise.
Today, Brown’s business is legal, and although it is doing well, it could be doing better if it were not for the fact that there are illegal caterers vying for events.
“It’s exasperating for someone who is trying,” she said. “It takes a certain amount every day for us to make it work. Every little party is important for me. It’s not just
the big parties. A $10 cake or a $20 cake adds up to make my overhead. I’m just trying to make a living like everyone else.”
Brown compared running an illegal catering business to a doctor’s office.
“It’s like someone opening up a doctor’s office in someone’s home and having patients come in,” she said.
And although Brown likes a little competition, she would like it more if all the competition was fair.
“That’s what makes this business grow,” she said.
Another important aspect of the catering business is liability insurance. And although nothing disastrous has happened to Brown during her 25 years of catering, with
the exception of breaking 10 Waterford glasses and a garbage disposal and the burning of a chair by a hotplate, it could.
“You never know when you’re going to go into someone’s home and burn down the kitchen,” she said. “You have to have some way to protect yourself.”
Not only does Brown’s high liability insurance protect herself and her business, it protects her customers as well, who could be sued by event attendants because food
is prepared incorrectly, or because a piece of glass falls into the chicken salad and someone swallows it.
They are stories all too familiar to Brown.
“I have grown emotionally and spiritually and every other way to have done it right,” she said. “It’s a wonderful business to be in. The people I have associated myself
with are wonderful, and the majority of the people know I’m licensed and doing it the right way, and I know that people respect that, and they wouldn’t want me to
put them in jeopardy.
“That’s sort of where I’m coming from.”
Cashion said, “I would urge customers to be aware that there is a significant risk that they encounter when you start dealing with food products that may not be
handled properly. I call that buyer beware.”
Added Brown: “To save a quarter might cost you thousands.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at email@example.com or (601) 364-1042.