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If you want to serve free wine and cheese at one of Missoula's First Friday events, you'll need a permit.

If you want to hand out bottles of water, cans of soda or small sealed prepackaged items, you don't.

The Missoula City-County Health Department has been mailing letters, setting up workshops and visiting businesses and galleries that participate in Missoula's monthly art walk to warn them that food safety laws apply.

The temporary food safety permit costs $115 if a business applies more than five days ahead. It will cover the First Friday events for the rest of 2018.

"It's not really a new requirement as far as the law is concerned," said Alisha Johnson, an environmental health specialist with the department. "We're just realizing that we need to treat this like any other food event."

Ten businesses had been permitted as of Friday, and on March 8 the department will have another drop-in workshop, co-hosted with the Missoula Downtown Association.

Business owners can come in to learn more about what the rules are, down to serving drinks in disposable cups and making sure that the chip bowl has a utensil.

Some owners appeared frustrated by the additional costs and the regulations for drinks and snacks that they give away as a courtesy.

Linda McCarthy, executive director of the MDA, said "permitting is important because there's an education process that takes place, and I think it protects the business from somebody getting sick and liability issues that could take place."

She said the reactions she's heard have been mixed, relating to the fees and rules, along with some questions about why the enforcement started.

"The fact of the matter is, the event has gotten larger, there's more people and more food and beverage service and more risk," she said.


Johnson said there weren't any reports of someone getting sick from food at First Friday. People who were applying for the permits for other events asked why you didn't need one for the art walk. The department looked at the extent of food being served and began outreach six months ago.

As part of the permit review, they'll answer questions about what a business owner wants to serve and what rules apply.

Sometimes they're simple. Take the classic bottle of wine and platter of cheese. People need to know about temperature control and how long a platter can be put out. With bottles of wine, disposable glasses are preferable.

"If we're dealing with reusable glassware, we want to make sure that actually gets washed, rinsed and sanitized appropriately so the next person using that glass doesn't end up with something on there that could adversely affect their health," she said.

Their goal is reducing outbreaks of food-borne illness, the most common being norovirus. She gave an example of what could happen if the rules aren't followed. Someone who was sick but felt better heading down to an event. They might not have adequately washed their hands, and reach into a big bowl of chips instead of using a serving utensil, thereby inadvertently spreading their illness. 

For more complex menus, the rules become more complicated and business owners should consult with the department. She stressed that the permits aren't meant to be punitive and they want to work with businesses.

"There are some pretty extensive regulations, and we're not expecting people to know these cold to do this," Johnson said.

The costs could be steep, though, if a business or gallery ignores the permit. One letter mailed to a gallery warns that starting next First Friday, March 2, "if you are serving food to the public, that requires a permit, but you do not have one, you will be required to permit on-site, discard unsafe food, and may be required to stop service completely." If so, "you are still required to pay the day-of permitting fees. Those day-of permitting fees are $110 for the plan review portion of the fee, and twice the required permit fee. Be aware that the total fees may be in excess of $300 to permit on-site."


Lisa Simon of the Radius Gallery was exploring her options. She typically serves lemonade and snacks at her openings. It can add up to $2,000 a year before the permit. Galleries like hers must stay open late for the event, which they participate in more for advocacy for their artists and downtown than sales. She thinks there should be a way for downtown as a whole to share the costs and benefits of the event, since galleries bear the costs of the art walk while bars and restaurants see direct profits.

Shalene Valenzuela also hopes the fee isn't cost-prohibitive for small galleries.

She runs the nonprofit Clay Studio of Missoula. Like other nonprofits, they'll be exempt. If they apply for a review of their menu, they have to pay just $30 for rest of the First Fridays in 2018, but not the larger permit fee.

She said the ceramics studio has typically served beverages and snacks because of their location on the Westside, away from downtown and its options for food.

The rules will put the kibosh on one tradition they had to add to the ambiance, she said. They can't serve drinks in their own ceramic cups. If they want to use their plate-ware, it must be wrapped in plastic.

At their community show, where they shared work by regular people who use their facilities, they used to encourage folks to bring homemade goods.

Per the rules, Johnson said homemade goods are "really off the table" if you're serving the public. It must either be commercially made or prepared in a commercial kitchen.

Katie Ghen Simpson, who owns Bathing Beauties Beads on the Hip Strip, said she attended a meeting on the permits because she'd heard inconsistent information. She understands the need for safety precautions and thought many of the rules were common sense, but wanted the department to talk to them like small-business retailers.

Simpson has still gone back and forth, and thinks she'll probably apply for a permit and continue to serve drinks and snacks. Overall, she fears that the changes might end up hurting artists, not businesses.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.