South-west espresso engineer makes unique business move in coffee safety

An experienced espresso-machine engineer in the south-west of England is believed to be the first person to set up a company specifically to deal with the legal requirement for pressure-vessel testing.
Mark Allen of Redruth, for several years an engineer with Origin Coffee (the only coffee roaster in the far south-west) has now formed Espress Test, and says that his services will greatly ease the administrative problem of machine inspection, and will also reduce costs considerably.
It is required that all catering businesses who use an espresso machine should be able to show certification of the machine’s annual pressure-vessel test. However, the recent explosion in a south-coast café has brought to light the long-held suspicion that many cafes simply do not bother fullfilling this legal requirement.
It is suspected that many machines go un-inspected and uncertified either because café owners are unaware of the regulations, or because of the high cost of certification.
That high cost is largely because two professional fees are usually required – one is for the ‘competent person’ who is generally hired by an insurance company to undertake the actual inspection and test, and one is for the café’s usual espresso engineer, who has to be on hand to open up the machine for the inspector.
The regulations say that companies who service espresso machines are not allowed to certify those machines, for fear of a conflict of interest. Several experienced engineers have already asked the appropriate authorities if they might qualify as ‘competent persons’, and been turned down for that reason.
This has led to some unrest among engineers, who point out that the ‘competent persons’ who certify espresso machines may not have specific knowledge of such machines – their work on pressure vessels may be a power station one day, a steamroller the next, and then a coffee machine.
However, it appears that it may be perfectly allowable for the ‘competent person’ to be a qualified engineer, who can thus save the café owner money by being able to open up the machine for himself, do the inspection and test, and put the machine back together.
It is this which has allowed Mark Allen to become probably the first espresso engineer to give up his full-time job to become an espresso machine safety assessor.
“I did it because I believe in it,” he told Coffee House magazine. “I’m not a health-and-safety freak, but I felt I had a duty to do something – and, in addition, it is possibly an incredible niche market!
“I certainly am going out on a limb with this, but I believe that it is the case that, as everybody in the trade suggests, a vast number of caterers just don’t have the legal ‘scheme of examination’. I shall have to be very careful of providing a service that caterers need, without marketing my services by scare tactics. It would be very easy to panic coffee shop owners who don’t know their obligations.”
The new company has been a long time in planning.
“I had begun looking into this 14 months before the Sainsburys incident. I began to realise that café owners were paying maybe £150 for the insurance company’s inspector, and maybe the same again for the espresso engineer to be on hand. I also realised that the ‘competent person’ hired by the insurance company is probably not experienced in espresso machines – he may be doing walk-in fridges next.
“So the regulations became my bedtime reading for months, because there are a vast number of cross-references to work through, and it turns out that the ‘competent person’ can be an engineer and dismantle the machine for himself, so long as he doesn’t actually do any engineering repair on it.
“It seems to be OK to me to replace anything I need to as a result of the inspection, so long as I do not actually perform any ‘engineering’ work. I am allowed to replace a faulty valve, or replace a gasket.”
This, says Mark Allen, means that he could become the best friend of many sectors of the trade – independent café owners will find his test significantly cheaper than the test as it is currently performed by two people, and suppliers and possibly even catering chains may find it much more convenient to hire him alone than to match the diaries of two separate professionals, as is the case at present.
As all espresso engineers are used to swapping work, or doing call-out jobs for a big chain who may happen to need someone in their area urgently, this new service may well be found to be very convenient for many sectors of the trade.
That in turn sets a new value on Mark’s own ‘scheme of inspection’, which, although he has the intellectual property right to it, could set an industry standard.
“A ‘scheme’ is a planned programme of inspection,” says Mark Allen. “The part that everyone knows about is the safety-valve inspection and the internal inspection of the boiler, which is the pressure vessel. With an endoscope, you can see virtually everything inside a boiler, including all the seams, and look for any corrosion. The most expensive equipment uses a camera small enough to go through the safety-valve hole – I can actually take pictures of the inside of a boiler.”
The result is a document which the caterer is required to keep for inspection, and which can be shown to an insurance company. Mark Allen says that his is similar to a vehicle MOT, in that it shows the performance of various parts of the machine, with additional advisory notes regarding items which might be renewed or repaired later, but which do not affect the ‘pass’ status of the machine.
“In theory, the caterer shows this to their insurance company,” says Mark. “In practice, whether any insurer asks to see it, is a good question… but then, car insurers don’t always actually ask to see an MOT or as driving licence. It’s being unable to present them in the event of an incident which is the big problem.”

Espress test: tel. 01209 200 900; http://www.espresstest.co.uk

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