Sherif Hefni, Partner at Levari LLP, shares his experiences of the main practical and regulatory issues within the restaurant industry in London with Law Today.
Regulations and licencing
To set up a restaurant there are certain procedures that any company must go through. Firstly, the restaurant’s location itself is very important. Each area in London has a local authority responsible for licensing a restaurant, bar or anything related to food and beverage. So, for example, Richmond in west London would come under the authority of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames. Each local authority designates and licenses commercial real estate and provides the different types of classes of licence. For F&B these comprised mainly Class A3, Class A4 and Class A5, as follows:
• Class A3. Restaurants and cafés – for the sale of food and drink for consumption on the premises – restaurants, snack bars and cafes.
• Class A4. Drinking establishments – public houses, wine bars or other drinking establishments (but not nightclubs).
• Class A5. Hot food takeaways – for the sale of hot food for consumption off the premises.
So, the local authority is completely responsible for allocating the class of the licence. As a food & beverage company, we would go into an area in London and look at the commercial buildings within this area, normally on a high street (because of the location) and check if they have either an A3 or A4 class licence.
The licence of the property is based on the location and the building. If it’s a commercial entity at the end of the high street next to a residential area, generally the local council won’t give you a late alcohol licence, because they don’t want people coming out of a nightclub late and disturbing residents. You are more likely to procure a late food and alcohol licence on a property in the middle of the high street. The local council also looks at the area and what effect it will have on its neighbourhood. It’s the local authorities that can give that licence and take it away; they also set any restrictions. So some areas have different restrictions than others. For example, some areas of London have no late bars, some areas all close at 11pm, whilst most of central London has places that are open until 2 or 3am.
The local authorities also control old and new licences. It might be that a piece of commercial real estate is licensed as a shop, but the owner can go to the local authorities and apply for a restaurant licence. If they grant the licence, the property which had been a shop may become a restaurant serving food & beverage, and it will remain so unless a new owner comes in and decides they want to change it. The point is that it is the local authority that controls the licensing of commercial entities.
The company I worked for had a restaurant in Richmond, west London. Because Richmond is a very upmarket area and the residents really do not like to have nightclubs there, we didn’t face any licensing problems as we were only a restaurant. However the building was listed, which meant we were not allowed to make any changes to the building’s exterior because of its historic importance. Once or twice we applied for a late licence and a live music licence; to do so we had to seek police permission in our application to the local authority. Here we were granted temporary licences.
In England, the manager of the restaurant must be licensed and trained in F&B and only a restaurant with a licensed manager will be granted a licence. This licence also bears the name of the manager, as he or she is fully responsible for it. When I took over as the General Manager of the area, I had to undertake exams and become a qualified, licensed F&B manager to put the licence of the restaurant under my name to get the licencing for our restaurants.
Health and safety
Health and safety is a big issue and quite heavily regulated in England. We had two entities that we reported to. One was the local council/authority, the other was a private company that we hired to independently manage and oversee our health and safety. The local council has the power to undertake a surprise health and safety check on your establishment any time it wants, if there is cause for concern or a complaint has been filed by a member of the public. So, if someone gets food poisoning from a restaurant and calls the local council, they can come straight away and do a check. If there is no cause for concern, they will do regular checks, but they will give you notice – usually a week.
On top of this, our organisation hired a private company to perform the same function, because health and safety is so important that if you get something wrong, the local council could close your restaurant down immediately, in which case you would stand to lose a lot of money and your licence. So, we hired a company to oversee health and safety for all our restaurants (at the time we had 24 within London). It gave us spot checks, provided training and made sure that all our health and safety standards were in place.
There are two key elements to health and safety, the handling of food & beverage and operational standards. As General Manager I was fundamentally responsible for both. Usually the manager of a restaurant would be responsible for the operations and the head chef for the handling of food.
The manager is generally responsible for the operational health and safety of the restaurant. So, for example, steps would be covered with anti-slip surfaces, tables cleaned with steriliser, mats should be clean, lights must be properly fixed and working, there can be no electricity cables coming out of the walls, the air-conditioning units must be properly maintained and you must have the company’s maintenance records. If a member of the public walks into the restaurant, he and your employees must be in a safe environment at all times.
Operational health and safety must ensure that employees have anti-slip shoes and gloves for handling food; chefs with long hair must have special hats to keep their hair out of the way. Health and safety from an operational point of view has its own requirements legally and when it comes to the internal policy of the company; the company we hired was responsible for making sure that we adhered to the law. My role as General Manager meant that I needed to ensure that the managers adhered to these standards; as such I would do my own checks.
Food handling is even more important than operations because in the UK, food poisoning is taken very seriously. Everything in a kitchen is properly monitored; all your chefs must have certificates to prove they have been trained in this area. When the food is delivered, the chef must check its temperature to make sure that nothing came in below or above the temperature required. Vegetables must be checked to make sure they are clean and there are no insects inside them. There needs to be traceability for baked goods to know where they came from. When it comes to meat, chicken and fish, the chefs are responsible for traceability. So, if you have a steak, you need to know which farm – and sometimes which cow – it came from! If something goes wrong with the steak then it can be traced back and we can inform the farmer not to sell meat from that cow, so it gives us an element of control. The suppliers are responsible for providing this information when they hand you the produce.
Furthermore, any product that comes into the kitchen must be put away immediately. Each item must be identified by a label and the date of delivery and temperature that it should be stored at. Fresh produce is also placed in sterilised containers and labelled with the use-by date.
The preparation of the food itself is heavily regulated, internally in the company and by the council. This relates to the equipment that needs to be used for each item – for fish, meat, chicken, pasta, bread, vegetables, and all other produce. Each item needs to be separated, stored and cleaned differently. Generally, when the council does its health and safety check, it will check on this also. The cleanliness of the kitchen is very important, so at least once a month a maintenance companies would come in to check everything in the restaurant and the kitchen, from the ventilation systems to the grills, to disinfecting the floors and surfaces, to making sure there were no insects or rats. A lot of companies will outsource this, to make sure this is properly done.
We also have set procedures for food poisoning, so where a customer becomes ill from eating a piece of chicken and makes a complaint, the piece of chicken is identified (based on the storage labels) and the batch it came from is immediately taken out of circulation. We then take that box, seal it, label it and send it off to an independent laboratory, which will tell you if there was something wrong with that batch. Generally, we would also ask the customer for either a stool sample or a blood sample which would also be sent to a laboratory. If the situation was very serious then the local council would get involved and the health and safety company that we hired would get involved; an independent committee would come in and they would take over the investigation themselves.
When dealing with food safety I believe such policies, regulations and laws are essential for public health and safety.