Paper is out for food establishment permit applications, and city officials say the new online-only process is speeding up turnaround time for approvals.
The Springfield-Greene County Health Department launched the online, paperless permit application process in August at Health.SpringfieldMo.gov to meet demand from applicants while also reducing staff time processing the paperwork.
“The main reasons we were wanting to move to online applications is that we had a lot of requests from customers to kind of have an easier and streamlined process,” said Brandee Turney, the Health Department’s environmental public health supervisor. “Our main focus was making it easier for people to apply for food permits.”
Digitizing the process is cutting the approval process down by days, Turney said, adding the previous system took around three to four weeks to complete. That included processing the application, waiting on all necessary documents to be submitted and an inspection.
“For a brick-and-mortar, the food code allows us for up to 30 days to process an application. That’s a very long time,” she said. “Now, it’s getting closer to a two-week period. We can get it done, get them scheduled and information they need for a preopening inspection.”
Turney said the idea has been on the Health Department’s radar since January, but it took a while to complete the process of moving the applications online to eCity, the city’s brand of cloud-based software. The software has been used for years for the permitting and application process by the city’s Building Development Services department.
Food establishments that require permits to operate in Greene County include restaurants, bars, retail stores selling food, farmers market vendors, food trucks, schools, hospitals and other facilities that prepare and serve food, as well as temporary events where food is served.
“Our goal date was July 1, but our overarching goal was that everything be completely ready, and we didn’t have any hiccups or problems with the technology when we went live,” Turney said. “So, we ended up waiting until the first week of August because we wanted it to be smooth and not problematic.”
Officials say over the past 12 months, the Health Department, which has 11 inspectors on staff, has reviewed nearly 200 applications for new food establishments or changes of ownership for existing ones.
“Every single inspector processes applications for their territory in Greene County,” Turney said.
She added that there are also temporary events, for which applications are reviewed on a rotating basis.
“On average, we get eight applications per week,” she said.
She said the initial review of paper applications was a time-consuming process for staff, averaging one to two hours, which also required trying to contact the applicant for any documents lacking, such as standard operating procedures, a menu or a floor plan of the establishment.
Now, whenever staff is lacking those documents, inspectors send a request for submittal that comes as an email to the applicant’s eCity account.
“They can then upload to their existing application whatever additional documents we need,” she said. “It then informs us when those have been submitted.”
Quick to launch
First-time business owner Janeth Moreno said she didn’t know what to expect when she recently filled out an online food service application. Her food truck, Whatever You Want LLC, opened near the start of the month at Metro Eats, the west Springfield development that also includes a food hall, bar, retail vendors and a farmers market.
“It’s stressful and scary to start your own business,” Moreno said.
Still, she doesn’t believe the application and subsequent inspection process added to her stress.
“I found it super easy. I was able to call them with any questions I had, and they were super helpful,” she said of the Health Department.
Filling out the application took less than an hour, and Moreno said any of the delay in opening was on her end. She said she filled out the application on a Friday and was contacted by an inspector the following Monday.
“For me to get an inspection, I could have gotten in that same week after filling in the application,” she said, noting she had an issue with the water heater used for the employee bathroom on the truck.
“We had to get that fixed, so I had to schedule (the inspection) for the following week.”
Health Department spokesperson Whitney Mann said roughly 170 applications have been submitted since the online process began in August. That includes all categories, such as restaurants, bars and temporary events. She said the launch of online applications had no additional cost as the city already was using the eCity software to document inspections and maintain records of food establishments.
Turney said the new system also allows for applicants to print their permit once approved instead of waiting on Health Department staff.
“Previously, people would have to call us and get a copy, or we’d have to print and mail a copy,” she said. “It was very time-consuming for us and for them to try and get a hold of it.”
As for those who don’t have access to internet or a computer to fill out their online application, Turney said the Health Department’s Environmental Health Services office has a computer station for public use at 320 E. Central St.
Applicants can also schedule a time with a staff inspector to walk them through the process.
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