- Reef Technology's ghost kitchens have been caught operating without permits in US cities.
- Food-safety experts say permits trigger food-safety inspections designed to protect the public.
- "Without a permit, the regulators are completely in the dark," one expert told Insider.
Reef Technology, the ghost-kitchen startup that prepares food in trailers for chains like Burger King, Wendy's, and TGI Fridays, has been frequently cited for operating without permits.
Like any brick-and-mortar restaurant, the SoftBank-backed startup is required by law to follow food-safety guidelines in each city it operates. While citations from health inspectors are common for many restaurants, obtaining a permit, which notifies cities to conduct food-safety inspections, is one of the first and most basic parts of operating a facility that serves food to the public.
Two food-safety experts said Reef could be putting the public at risk by failing to obtain permits to operate.
"Without a permit, the regulators are completely in the dark as to where that facility is, what they're making, and what they need to be looking for when they get in there," said Brian Kellerman, chief food-safety officer at Kellerman Consulting.
"To be clear, Reef understands the importance of permitting and we want to be regulated," a Reef spokesperson said in an email. "As we've stated previously, in all cases, we hold ourselves to the highest standards of food-handling and safety training in all our kitchens. The health and safety of our employees and customers are Reef's top priority."
But in Reef's race to open ghost kitchens across the US, bolstered by $1.5 billion in venture capital, the company has skipped this basic step in several major cities, including New York City, Detroit, Houston, and Philadelphia, Insider has reported. Reef operates about 320 food trailers globally through licensing agreements with restaurant brands that include national chains, independent restaurants, and celebrity-backed virtual brands like Guy Fieri's Flavortown Kitchen.
Access to potable water, delivery of undercooked food, and faulty equipment have also been issues, according department of health records and to Reef insiders.
A routine health inspection includes checking for employee access to portable toilets, availability of safe drinking water, proof that employees have passed a food-safety certification course, and the safe handling of proteins such as ground beef and seafood.
"Those things have very clear rules around them to protect the public," said Kellerman, whose firm helps businesses and food manufacturers meet food-safety regulations.
The company has said its innovative food "vessels", which are different in some ways than a food truck, can cause confusion at city health departments and delay the permitting process.
"We take permitting very seriously and believe it plays a critical role in advancing health and safety for all," the Reef spokesperson said by email. "In every city where Reef operates, we seek the appropriate permits. If there are gaps in our model and existing permitting structures, we collaborate with local regulators and take actions to comply. We know there is more work to be done and we can do better. When compliance issues have occurred, we take them seriously, and work diligently to address them as they arise."
Porfirio Villarreal, a spokesperson for the Houston Health Department, said by failing to obtain permits for certain trailers or moving trailers to unapproved locations, Reef makes its kitchens "invisible" to inspectors.
Access to clean water has been an issue in Houston, Chicago, and New York City. One kitchen manager in Houston told Insider that her trailer was hooked up to a garden hose. Another manager said when trailers ran out of water, his team would crack open Dasani bottles.
Potable water is used for cleaning dishes, washing hands, and in some cases, cooking food inside trailers. Reef has said it doesn't use water for cooking in its trailers. Kellerman said clean water is especially crucial for employees to properly wash their hands. The quality of water coming out of a garden hose, for example, in unpredictable and can change from city to city especially after a rainstorm or flooding event, he said.
Having "potable water is an absolute requirement" to curb the spread of communicable diseases, he said.
"The easiest way to spread norovirus, hepatitis, or any of the other communicable versions of food poisoning comes from hand contact," Kellerman said.
More coverage on Reef from Insider:
Reef insiders say its ghost kitchens faced operational chaos, complaints of raw chicken, and lack of water in the tiny mobile trailers where the startup cooks food for Wendy's, Burger King, and other major chains
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