Restaurants scrub interior to bring back customers after health code violations
Step inside the double doors of one Mesa County restaurant and expect to be awed with the rendition of a lotus flower unfolding in the tile work. An expansive buffet is creatively encased in a wooden boat, and rows of tabletops are shined to a deep walnut-colored brown. Booths are separated by ornate, glass-encased, wooden, miniature snapshots of traditional Chinese life: quaint bridges, bamboo huts and blooming trees. A faux, budding cherry tree appears to grow up the side of one wall, its branches dangling above some patrons’ heads.
Despite the immaculate interior and cheerful staff who hadn’t received one complaint from customers about the food, Grand International Buffet, 2504 U.S. Highway 6&50, was cited as the county’s top food sanitation violator in 2009, with 20 critical violations.
But that was last year.
The restaurant that opened in the fall of 2008 recently received perfect scores in areas of cleanliness and food safety from the Mesa County Health Department, and its staff is not shy about advertising the changes.
Furthermore, all of the 17 restaurants that received 10 to 20 critical violations during two separate, unannounced checks by health inspectors in 2009 have made major improvements to food health and sanitation practices, according to county records and interviews with restaurant staff.
“We have proof now,” said Grand International Buffet hostess Cherrie Lang. She flashed the Health Department’s latest follow-up inspection sheet, dated March 18.
Lang translates Mandarin Chinese for the restaurant’s owner, Cheng Le Lin.
“Now we’re doing good,” she said. “Everything is corrected.”
In the weeks after the county’s release of its Blue Ribbon report in mid-February, business at the bustling, all-you-can-eat buffet slumped by 30 to 40 percent, Lang said. It was obvious that media coverage of the restaurant’s poor rating left a sour taste in customers’ mouths. A large group that had booked for a party canceled. Though some repeat customers pledged their loyalty, saying they loved the food enough to overlook the violations, restaurant workers couldn’t help but notice the drop-off.
Empty seats began to appear in the eatery that can hold more than 300 people, seats that before had easily been filled.
“Now I hope more people are going to come,” Lang said.
Indeed, this may be the safest time of year for diners to visit many of Mesa County’s food establishments as the restaurants that received the most violations in 2009 are keenly aware of the effects a negative review can create.
At Grand International Buffet, for example, the owner now checks temperatures of buffet items twice a day, and the restaurant’s standards are higher than Health Department codes.
Cold foods are kept at 38–39 degrees, and temperatures of hot foods above 160 degrees. The Health Department requires hot foods to maintain a temperature above 140 degrees and cold foods to be below 41 degrees.
Other changes, including a new manager and increased employee education, have helped the restaurant remedy other 2009 violations.
Changes have occurred in other restaurants around the Grand Valley.
When a health inspector on Oct. 23 noted the presence of live and dead cockroaches at Talley’s Restaurant, 623 Main St., workers sprang into action. The restaurant closed for a week as workers tore down walls and rebuilt the kitchen area, pouring $9,000 worth of renovations into the site.
“To be very honest, we felt it was getting out of hand,” kitchen manager Ken Harmon said. “We rebuilt the whole thing. When you have a restaurant, you don’t take chances. Your best answer is to take it all out and start again.”
Five days after that inspection, the restaurant had cured its pest problem.
During the follow-up investigation on Oct. 28, a health inspector noted only one critical violation: a gloveless employee handling lettuce and tomatoes while making a hamburger.
If a customer has a question about a restaurant’s operation, owner Philip “Opie” Johnson of Black Bear Diner, 624 Rae Lynn St., invites people on back.
Johnson’s restaurant had 11 total critical violations last year, including a dishwashing machine not supplying chlorine sanitizer, a live roach seen crawling on an upper dishwasher shelf, cuts of steak on a sheet pan in a walk-in refrigerator with internal temperatures of 48–50 degrees (they were discarded).
All of those were cleared by a Dec. 16 follow-up inspection.
Johnson, whose breakfast, lunch and dinner operation brings in about 1,700 customers per week, said the fallout from this year’s report, combined with a decrease in gas field workers, amounted to about $1,500 a day in lost sales.
“When you do get quote, unquote, bad news out there, it’s the last thing you need in a recession,” Johnson said.
But he stresses that customers should take some of the violations with a grain of salt.
For example, some of the violations last year were not food-safety related, including a spray bottle of clear liquid that was not labeled (it was thrown away) and uncovered beverage cups.
“They (health inspectors) can crush anybody if they come in at noon on a lunch day,” Johnson said.
He likened a health inspector rating a restaurant during a busy rush to a reporter’s news story being printed immediately without the chance for editing or spell checking.
In 2007, Johnson’s business received 17 critical violations, which put him at the top of the sanitation violations list along with a hit of about $3,000 a week from lost customers.
At that time, he said, violations included the need to replace three floor tiles and a missing cover for a light bulb.
“The difference is my violations are piddly now. There’s more education. We’ve improved,” he said.
Some of those improvements stem from peer pressure by affixing the offending employee’s name to a violation and posting the report on the restaurant wall. Still, Johnson appreciates the insight from health inspections.
“They come through with a fresh set of eyes,” he said. “They see things that we don’t see every day because we’re always looking at them. They readjust your eyes.”
Bookcliff Country Club, 2730 G Road, was the recipient of 11 critical violations in 2009. General manager Dave Kelley said all of them have been fixed.
“It wasn’t like we had roaches or anything,” he said. “If you looked at what the violations were, it was like a dented can and an uncovered employee drink.”
When the clubhouse closes for two weeks in January, employees spend the time pressure washing and completely cleaning the kitchen. Reports of the violations shocked club members, especially because they were released after the major cleaning.
The country club was inspected months earlier on June 30 and Nov. 24, with violations including a bartender seen scooping ice with a glass; a 40-pound cooked brisket held in a tub at 44 degrees (it was discarded); items above 41 degrees on a prep table; a dishwashing machine not supplying enough hot water; soap not provided at the bar; an unlabeled orange spray; uncovered employee cups; an employee seen garnishing a drink with a bare hand; and too much sanitizer used in a bar sink.
“We corrected the violations, and we are looking forward to the next inspection,” Kelley said.
Darleen McKissen, an environmental health specialist with the Mesa County Health Department, said she thinks the reports have an effect on customers because people are becoming more aware of food-borne illnesses.
In the past, Health Department officials could not mark new critical violations observed in follow-up inspections, but that has changed. That shift makes it appear restaurants are operating less sanitary than before.
Restaurants are levied civil penalties for critical violations not fixed after follow-up inspections.
Health inspectors work to bridge language barriers, taking classes on cultural diversity, and handouts are offered in multiple languages. One Mesa County Spanish language inspector handles many of the Hispanic-themed restaurants, McKissen said.
The goal of the inspections is to get compliance from restaurants. Often, restaurants with the fewest violations have good oversight from educated managers, McKissen said. Full-service restaurants with large menus invariably have more areas to maintain.
Ultimately, the reports offer customers a snapshot of a restaurant’s practices, so people can make educated choices about where to eat.
“We’re giving them more information,” she said. “Do I think we have more educated consumers? Definitely. Do I wish they would stop using the rumor mill? Yes. People deserve that right to make the choice for themselves.”