| The rocky relationship between San Ramon's open-air market Windmill Farms and the county health department just got a little smoother.
A plan to build an enclosed space for cut melons, bulk food, dairy and meat was approved by the health department last week. Automatic sliding doors are scheduled to be put in at the mom-and-pop shop and are expected to cost owners of the 33-year-old shop nearly $40,000.
"We had to take out a loan," said owner Jason Benavidez.
Owners clashed with the county in August after it mandated the shop build four walls or stop selling food that inspectors deemed could be contaminated easily in the open air. Bulk food, like nuts and candies, and cut fruit were the biggest offenders.
The Benavidez family put in temporary see-through sliding doors in mid-February, after the county served the market a cease and desist order for continuing to sell "hazardous foods" in the same conditions.
The shop then closed for three days and the health department ordered the immediate stop of sales.
"It's been a mess," Benavidez said this week.
The owner-operated business had to take out loans for the doors to be installed. Business was already down 25 percent in sales since August, he said.
County health department officials say they are pleased with the progress the market is making.
"Our only interest is to protect the quality of food and to protect the people who eat it," said Sherman Quinlan, director of the county's environmental health services.
He said insects, birds and "sometimes furry pests" are more likely to contaminate food that isn't sold in an enclosed space.
The market has no record of any substantial health code violations.
Corey Hegney, who was shopping for fruit with his son Monday afternoon, said he has never been worried about unsanitary conditions at the market. He added that the new doors didn't make him feel more secure about his health.
"The doors are a deterrent, actually. If it grows in the ground, why can't it be out in the air?" he said.
The county-issued approval of the new doors is good through February 2009. But Benavidez said he still doesn't feel like the case is closed.
"It's working now, but who knows what they are gonna say next week," he said.
After the permanent doors go in, the county health department will do another inspection to make sure Windmill Farms is using the structure and the equipment in a safe way.
"It's a dynamic condition - it doesn't remain static," Quinlan said.
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