When the Orange County Health Department forced cooking schools to comply with seemingly unfair regulations, the owners of those schools decided to fight back.
Cooking schools at A Southern Season in Chapel Hill and C'est si Bon in Carrboro helped change health department regulations that required cooking schools that teach people to cook at home to meet the same extensive equipment standards as restaurants.
The bill became state law June 27, and it will save at least 100 cooking schools across the state money—and headaches.
In August 2010, Orange County Health Department officials told Briggs Wesche, general manager of A Southern Season, and Marilyn Markel, cooking school manager, that it had to upgrade its refrigerators to restaurant standards in order to continue its cooking classes. However, A Southern Season doesn't teach people to be restaurant chefs; it teaches them how to cook at home. The regulation struck Wesche and Markel as unnecessary.
"It doesn't make sense that we would have to have the same kind of equipment," said Markel. "We're not Johnson & Wales. We don't teach people to work in professional kitchens."
For example, Markel said, under the regulations, instructors couldn't use a food processor during classes because it is a household appliance; they would have to use the commercial—and expensive—equivalent.
The cooking school at A Southern Season had to cancel several classes, but was ultimately able to buy the equipment necessary to comply with the law. "We squeaked by. I don't know any other cooking schools that could qualify," said Markel.
The cost to upgrade a kitchen to restaurant-grade equipment could cost up to $20,000, said Markel, beyond what many at-home cooking schools can afford.
Before the health department inspected A Southern Season, it inspected C'est si Bon, owned by Dorette and Rich Snover. In August 2010, officials from the health department arrived, accompanied by two Orange County sheriffs, while a class was in progress, according to sheriffs' reports. The health department had previously tried to inspect C'est si Bon, but the Snovers had not cooperated, said Tom Konsler, Orange County's environmental health director. As a result, the health department contacted the Orange County Sheriff's Office to accompany its officials to serve an administrative search warrant.
Health department officials inspected the kitchen and told Dorette Snover the same thing they told A Southern Season: upgrade or shut down. C'est si Bon operates out of the Snovers' home, and they could not afford to upgrade their kitchen. See correction below.
The Snovers also felt that their school was exempt from the regulations, citing a 2007 state memo that exempts schools that provide food for classes in sealed, participant-size portions that are opened by students. In September 2010, the Snovers sued Orange County, the health department and Connie Pixley, environmental health supervisor for the facility inspections program, asking for $10,000 in damages and a proclamation that their school is exempt. Dorette Snover and Barry Nakell, her attorney, declined to comment about the case.
Annette Moore, staff attorney for Orange County, said that in late 2010 a judge granted a preliminary injunction against C'est si Bon, stating it would have to comply with the current regulations. However, after the regulations were changed in June, Konsler said that the health department met with the Snovers and agreed that they are now exempt and can continue offering classes. The suit requesting $10,000 in damages was dismissed.
Wesche and Markel at A Southern Season decided to take another course of action: to try to change the regulations. Wesche contacted the Chapel Hill-Carrboro County Chamber of Commerce, which connected her and Markel with lawmakers including state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, who represents Orange and Person counties. Kinnaird agreed that the regulations were unnecessary, consulted the health department and introduced a bill in March. The bill was co-sponsored by state senators Malcolm Graham from Mecklenburg County and Floyd McKissick from Durham County.
The new law exempts cooking schools from the restaurant requirement as long as they "provide courses or instruction on food preparation techniques that participants can replicate in their homes." To receive an exemption, schools also must "prepare or serve food for cooking school participants during instructional time only, and do not otherwise prepare or serve food to the public."
However, Konsler said the new regulations do not exempt cooking schools like the one at A Southern Season; it prepares food before the instructional time. That food is used not only in the cooking classes but also the grocery's deli and the Weathervane restaurant.
But for C'est si Bon, the change allows it to continue to offer classes and save an enormous amount of time and money.
"It is a fabulous, fabulous thing that it did pass," Snover said. "I'm glad that the regulations speak to what cooking schools are."
Correction (Aug. 23, 2011): This story incorrectly stated that the Orange County Health Department told C'est si Bon to "upgrade or shut down." The department wanted the cooking school to apply for a permit; then it may have been required to upgrade.
Correction (Aug. 30, 2011): The Chapel Hill-Carrboro (not Orange County) Chamber of Commerce worked to get the exemption passed.