ST. PETERSBURG — One of St. Petersburg's most high-profile restaurants was padlocked for 24 hours before reopening Tuesday evening for dinner. A whole lot had to happen to remove the lock from Ceviche's front door.
An inspection to check on previous infractions had uncovered a raft of additional problems and forced the Monday afternoon shutdown, said Sandi Copes Poreda, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
By Tuesday at lunchtime the popular Spanish restaurant, after a cleaning flurry, had been cleared to reopen.
And Ceviche, which has sister restaurants in Tampa, Clearwater, Orlando, Sarasota and Delray Beach, is not alone.
So what shuts a restaurant?
Florida has 186 sanitation and safety inspectors, with 31 assigned to District 3, an area that covers Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Polk and Sumter counties. In the past fiscal year there were 405 emergency closures out of 141,425 inspections.
An emergency closure, which is not a disciplinary action, is designed to mitigate conditions that pose an elevated risk to the health, safety or welfare of the public or the establishment's employees. These risks include lack of approved utilities or hot water, sewage backups or overflows, fire damage, inadequate refrigeration and pest infestation.
It was this last category that closed Ceviche. There were dead roaches at the end of the cooking line. And, more troubling, there was a count of at least 25 live roaches above the water filter, a live one beside the hand-washing sink, and others in the lowboy drawer of a line cook.
Creepy to think about, but not rare. In the past month, Sloppy Pelican in St. Pete Beach, Jade Garden in Tampa and an Applebee's in Temple Terrace have all had roach-related emergency closures.
Ceviche senior managing partner Jim Snyder feels comfortable with the company's response to the closure. An "all hands on deck" call brought senior management to the St. Petersburg location Monday along with vendors and the restaurant's regular pest-control service.
"We take these things very seriously," Snyder said. "This is our first emergency closure. And our last."
The news didn't deter diners as Tuesday night's dinner service got under way. Judy Frost of St. Petersburg and Bob Hemingway of Bradenton knew about the closure, and they chose Ceviche.
"I'm disappointed to hear (about the closure), it's such a fabulous restaurant,'' Frost said. "But roaches must be common in old buildings like this."
Even a 24-hour closure is no small blow, especially for a high-volume restaurant such as Ceviche, which routinely sees 500 to 600 customers a day. As a downtown stalwart since 2005, a very public closure of this kind has the potential to damage a reputation built over years. Additionally, Ceviche's management aims to open a steak house in the former YWCA building at 655 Second Ave. S in St. Petersburg by summer.
In downtown St. Petersburg's increasingly dense playing field, unsavory inspection reports can't help. But according to Snyder, this closure represented "an isolated circumstance, nipped in the bud."
Perhaps, but Ceviche, as with most restaurants, has had minor infractions from time to time. These may include things that make inspectors look like picky fussbudgets (fine, so there's no "wash your hands" sign on the hand-washing sink). But some violations should be reason for concern. Along with the roaches, Ceviche's recent infractions included food held at temperatures warmer than those that are considered safe.
These higher temperatures provide a medium in which bacteria can grow. About 76 million Americans each year fall sick to food-borne illnesses, often erroneously chalking up a range of symptoms to a 24-hour bug rather than a recent restaurant meal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses take the lives of 5,000 people annually.
And even fancy, famous restaurants are not immune from making diners sick. In the past couple of years, celebrity British chef Jamie Oliver and three-Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal have been accused of sickening diners.
Ceviche's management responded swiftly to Monday's emergency closure. But the onus is on the day-to-day kitchen staff to implement safe practices that minimize the risk of salmonella, E. coli, campylobacter and other common sources of food-borne illnesses.
When Frost and Hemingway were asked if they were nervous about dinner at Ceviche, Hemingway said wryly: "Well, we're drinking first.''
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.