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TIMES SPECIAL REPORT // EAT, DRINK AND BE WARY

Rodents. Roaches. Flies. Rotting food. Major slime and filth.

Those were among 92 problems noted in an inspection last year of Bill Irle's Restaurant in Clearwater.

For years state restaurant officials had scrapped with Irle over conditions at his business. By October 1994, they were about to bring him in for a hearing and possible fine for refusing to admit an inspector.

But Irle wrote a letter in which he alluded to suicide. Officials at the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation backed down.

A month later, an inspector warned Irle he was coming the following day for what should have been a surprise inspection. The restaurant passed.

No inspector went back for nine months. When one did, she found 62 violations that took five pages to detail. Yet the restaurant remained open.

Are state officials concerned that people eat in restaurants where inspectors have found page upon page of violations? The head of the state's restaurant inspection system said he is.

"I'm asking the same question that you're asking, "Why? ... Why don't we close them?' " said Richard T. Farrell, who was appointed BPR secretary in February. " "Are there good reasons? And are there better or different ways we should be handling those kinds of situations?' "

Last month Farrell appointed a task force to study Florida's restaurant inspection system after hundreds of customers got sick from eating at restaurants in West Palm Beach, Jacksonville and Orlando.

It's a system with big problems, the Times found in a review of inspections in the five-county Tampa Bay area. While most restaurants meet minimum sanitation and safety standards, the state is lax in dealing with those restaurants that have chronic troubles.

Efforts to ensure cleanliness and eliminate food-borne illnesses and diseases are hampered by a variety of factors:

_ Many restaurants are inspected less often than they should be. Of the 5,100 fast-food restaurants and other eateries in Tampa Bay, 42 percent received fewer inspections last year than BPR required.

Inspectors were even less diligent in checking restaurants with the worst problems. Of the 123 worst, as judged by BPR's internal scoring system, 72 percent had fewer inspections than required.

_ The Tampa district, which includes Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, ranked last among the state's seven districts in the percentage of restaurant inspections during the last fiscal year. The district has just 26 inspectors, who also are responsible for 3,400 lodgings.

_ Even when serious and chronic violations are found, penalties are rare. So far this year only 35 restaurants have been fined in the Tampa district and not a single one has been closed through the formal hearing process.

Instead, inspectors go back time after time, giving restaurants repeated chances to fix violations without penalty.

Farrell said his agency, which has stressed education over enforcement, may need to be more aggressive. BPR should "make it very clear that it means business," he said.

_ It's difficult for a customer to tell if a restaurant is truly clean and meets state sanitation standards. Many restaurants don't keep their most recent inspection reports on hand, as required by code. And a customer-friendly, ABC grading system was adopted by just one county before state lawmakers, under pressure from the restaurant industry, banned its use by the 66 other counties.

Florida's system of restaurant inspections contrasts sharply with more aggressive programs elsewhere. Some states require grades to be posted in restaurants, offenders to be jailed and inspection results publicized.

Health investigators say the need for thorough inspections is critical. Since Jan. 1, 1994, they have documented nine instances involving a total of 60 people who have become ill from eating in Tampa Bay restaurants. That includes 15 people who contracted hepatitis A from eating in a Tampa deli.

And health officials say those numbers are low. Food-borne illnesses are vastly under-documented, they say, because of problems in reporting and proving them.

"We (need) to be looking at our entire inspection program," Farrell said, "not only from the standpoint are we meeting the statutory requirements, but does it really work to solve the problem?"

Doing spot checks

Industry experts agree that a program of frequent, surprise inspections is the best way to ensure restaurant cleanliness and safety.

Conditions at restaurants can change quickly. A restaurant that got a perfect inspection one afternoon could have its cooling system break down that night and could, the next day, serve food that would make people sick.

"There's no question that the more often we're there, the more likely we're able to spot something," said BPR's Tampa district administrator Barbara Dietrichsen.

For the last two fiscal years, BPR regulations required that restaurants get two, three or four inspections a year, based on scores the agency calculated by looking at how many problems the restaurants had the year before. Restaurants with more problems were slated to get more inspections.

The scores were used internally; most restaurants didn't even know they existed. BPR dropped the system this summer, partly, spokesman Ed Towey said, because reporters had discovered the scores and begun publicizing them.

Towey also said the scores were unfair because of how they were calculated. A restaurant would lose five points for inadequate rodent control, whether the problem was a torn screen that could allow rodents to enter or a severe infestation of rats.

Now, BPR regulations require all restaurants to get three inspections a year.

The regulations are stricter than Florida law, which requires restaurants be inspected at least twice each year. A Times analysis showed that BPR failed to meet even that standard for 18 percent of the restaurants in the Tampa Bay area; they got only one inspection.

A problem at Clearwater Mall's food court in July might have been avoided had inspectors made four trips, as they were scheduled to do, instead of just the three trips that they in fact made.

An inspector who paid that extra visit might have seen that an outdoor trash bin had been moved near the food court _ and might have discovered a rodent infestation before a customer was bitten.

Walter Jones, 22, of Largo, said he was on a pay telephone inside the mall on the afternoon of July 6. A rat about the size of a "kitten" ran across the food court and up his leg. He said it scratched and bit him on the abdomen before he could pry it free.

"I was kind of glad it jumped on me because there were a lot of kids in strollers around there," Jones said.

Jones telephoned BPR, but five days went by before an inspector showed up. The inspector found evidence of rodents in five of the food court's nine restaurants, which feed hundreds of people a day. He said most of the evidence was gone within a week.

Mall general manager Robert Courtney called it an isolated incident.

BPR's Farrell said he isn't convinced that one or two additional inspections a year would help much because conditions at restaurants constantly change.

Among other things, he said, the task force will consider whether restaurants should be inspected twice a year, with third or fourth longer visits only at problem establishments.

Farrell thinks more emphasis should be placed on making sure that restaurant workers are trained in proper food-handling techniques. "We can inspect 10 times a year," he said, "but if they don't know what to do about handling food, it isn't going to make a whole lot of difference."

Persistent problems

Everyone going to Clearwater Beach via the Memorial Causeway passes the Beach Diner, a '50s-style restaurant decked out in stainless steel and neon.

Few know that the Beach Diner had so many problems in July 1994 that it had to close.

A state inspector conducting a surprise check discovered the restaurant had no hot water. Chicken, seafood, hamburger and cheese were kept at the wrong temperatures. Mold and water were dripping on lettuce and coleslaw. Dishes were not sanitized. Extensive cleaning was needed.

The restaurant corrected enough problems that it was allowed to reopen the next day. But three months later, the inspector noted 25 violations. A permanent solution, she wrote, was "severely needed."

Then the inspector went on maternity leave. The Beach Diner didn't get the final two inspections it should have had for the year.

The restaurant was one of many in the Tampa Bay area that had problems for years but were inspected less frequently than required. Some were small family-run spots; others were big name, high-traffic establishments.

It's difficult to tell exactly how many of Tampa Bay's 5,100 restaurants have chronic problems and are under-inspected. The Times found dozens of them by leafing through files.

After neglecting the Beach Diner for eight months, BPR finally checked it again last July 27. That was two weeks after a Times reporter asked owner Steve Chandler about his problems over the past year. The inspector found only a few minor violations.

Chandler said he has installed new equipment and ordered workers to follow a cleaning checklist.

Under the state's scoring system, the Beach Diner scored 48 on a 100-point scale in the past two fiscal years. That put it among 15 of the 5,100 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area to score below 60 both years.

"I would be concerned to eat in a place that had a rating below 60," said inspector Mark Welch.

Also among the 15 was a McDonald's in St. Petersburg. The restaurant, at 260 34th St. N, had scores of 51 for the 1993-94 fiscal year and 56 in the past fiscal year.

In January 1993, an inspector found egg and sausage mix at the wrong temperature and roaches inside the milk shake machine.

The restaurant paid a $400 fine in May 1994 for eight violations that repeatedly went uncorrected, including grease build-up on some cooking equipment, no soap at the hand-wash sink and a hole in the wall over the walk-in freezer.

In July and November 1994, an inspector found mold inside the ice machine, flies around the garbage bin and compactor, and grease on the floor under the grills. Still, the restaurant passed the inspections.

The restaurant then went without an inspection for nine months _ although it was supposed to have had at least two during that period. An inspector who visited last Aug. 23 gave the restaurant passing marks even though she found the interiors of all storage cabinets behind the counter to be "extremely dirty," and instructed the restaurant to clean dirty floors in the break room and store room.

The restaurant has new management and new policies, said Cheryl Smith of McDonald's Corp. in Tampa. Sanitation problems at McDonald's restaurants are "very unusual," she said.

Not all restaurants with chronic problems are as successful at breaking the cycle. BPR's Farrell is concerned that a number of restaurants with serious problems continue operating year after year. "This is one of the areas that obviously needs some attention," he said.

"A rat ran right in front of me'

State officials say staffing shortages keep them from doing as many inspections as they'd like _ even at restaurants like Bill Irle's in Clearwater.

Irle refused to comment for this story. But in 1986, he told the Times: "Everyone has bugs, why can't I have bugs? ... I have a mouse problem every year. They come in when it gets cold. ... What can I do? I'm not a cat. My customers will judge me, not the health department."

More recently, inspector Julie Giese decided that years of inspecting Irle's restaurant were enough.

"A rat ran right in front of me and he (Irle) denied having any rats," she said. "He would yell and scream, get on his knees, beg and pray."

She asked that another inspector take over.

On May 4, 1994, inspector Mark Welch listed 92 problems. Two weeks later, Welch found most of the violations corrected.

The next time Welch visited, Oct. 31, 1994, he was refused entry into the restaurant at 1310 N Fort Harrison Ave. Welch drew up papers calling in Irle for a hearing. He delivered them with the help of two Clearwater police officers.

In a letter to Welch's supervisor, Rick Akin, Irle said his son had refused entry to the inspector because the restaurant wasn't open. Irle said television coverage of Welch's May inspection had been "devastating to our business."

"You have no idea what stress was put on the family, we have all been through living hell, and don't think there wasn't times when I considered suicide," Irle wrote.

Akin said the enforcement action was dropped because Welch could not be sure that people were inside preparing food when he tried to enter. That, Akin said, would have made for a stronger case.

Welch, however, said Irle's letter also played a role. "We all really felt bad that this guy was thinking about killing himself," he said. "That was part of the deliberation."

About a month later, according to his supervisor, Welch went to the restaurant and, in an effort to work with Irle, warned him that he would return the next day to do an inspection. That was contrary to the agency's policy of conducting surprise checks.

The next day, Nov. 29, Welch found only a few minor violations.

The restaurant, which had a score of 42, should have had four surprise inspections in the last fiscal year. Instead, it received just the one inspection, which Irle was warned about.

Moreover, the state's file on the case was incomplete. Only when the Times submitted a written request for information did regulators produce Irle's letter and the report of the aborted inspection.

The restaurant was last visited on Aug. 11, when an inspector found 62 violations. Most of the problems were corrected within a week.

BPR managers said they didn't extend any special favors to Irle. Dietrichsen, the Tampa district administrator, said the restaurant was under-inspected because of staffing shortages.

BPR's Division of Hotels and Restaurants has 26 inspectors in the Tampa Bay district to check nearly 9,000 restaurants and lodgings. Adding to the inspectors' burden has been what regional administrator Mike Scionti called an "inordinate" number of absences due to such circumstances as promotions, maternity leave and family deaths.

The Tampa office also suffers an "insane" record-keeping system, Scionti said. Many inspection records are misfiled, entire files are sometimes lost and mistakes are made keying information into an antiquated computer system.

Partly for these reasons, the Tampa district ranked last in the number of restaurant inspections in the fiscal year ended June 30.

An internal investigation done a year ago found that workers in the district suffered from low morale and complained about favoritism in promotions. Inspectors, who work out of their homes, generally make less than $25,000 a year for a job that sometimes gets them slashed tires and death threats.

An independent advisory council concluded last year that BPR needs more inspectors. Although he acknowledges it will be tough convincing lawmakers of that in tight budget times, Farrell hopes recent food-borne outbreaks will result in more positions next year.

Bending over backward

BPR stresses education over punishment, urging inspectors to work with restaurants to get them to make needed changes.

Inspectors "bend over backward, because that's what we emphasize," Scionti said.

Still, he said, in some cases inspectors should be quicker to bring restaurants in for hearings and possible fines.

"I think you can give a person a chance," he said. But, "this is ridiculous to do this over and over."

Crawdaddy's in Tampa had 11 visits from an inspector in the last fiscal year _ four initial inspections and seven return checks. Violations included food kept at the wrong temperature, a rotted floor at the bar, holes in the ceiling and walls, a dish-washing machine that didn't sanitize, wastewater draining into a five-gallon bucket at one of the bars and heavy grease buildup on the floor below the fryers.

Records indicate no efforts to try to fine or close Crawdaddy's in the past year. The restaurant at 2500 Rocky Point Drive had a score of 47 last year and 26 the year before.

Dave Davis, director of operations for Crawdaddy's parent company, Specialty Restaurant Corp., said he thought 11 visits a year was typical for restaurants.

"If it was so bad, then why have they not done anything about it?" he asked.

Scionti said he recently directed inspectors to do fewer return checks and instead be quicker to seek hearings and possible fines.

At the Black Angus restaurant in Largo, for example, an inspector made seven visits in four months earlier this year. That's too many, Scionti said.

By the time it was over, the restaurant at 13707 58th St. N was fined $2,600, by far the highest fine levied against any Tampa Bay restaurant so far this year.

BPR inspector Charles E. Howell cited the restaurant for such things as reusing butter that had been served to customers, failing to sanitize dishes, representing pork as veal and serving imitation crab meat without identifying it as such.

He also saw to it that the restaurant, on two occasions, threw out a total of 61 pounds of baked potatoes that had been left out overnight.

The allegations were false, said Peter Christopoulos, vice president of the company that owns Black Angus. "I don't know if he lied ... or he is too ignorant," he said. "I question the integrity of their (inspectors') training. ... I think they're after money (fines)."

Few restaurants are fined _ about 35 in Tampa Bay so far in 1995 _ and most of the fines are below $500. That's too low, some critics say, to do much good.

Even fewer restaurants reach the ultimate enforcement step _ closure.

And even in those cases, restaurants that pose an immediate threat to the public usually are offered the option of "voluntarily" closing. That means a restaurant can hide the truth by telling customers it's been "Closed for vacation" or something similar instead of having BPR post a sign that says "Closed to protect the public health."

In most cases, a voluntarily closure also spares the restaurant from further penalties, such as a fine.

Records show that 13 restaurants in the Tampa Bay area "voluntarily" closed during the last fiscal year, although inspectors said the true number is higher.

"It's not that we're protecting them," Scionti said. "It's not our job to put them out of business either."

Farrell said he is rethinking the use of voluntary closures. "Whether that remains our primary enforcement mechanism in the future, I would say is an open question." he said.

Restaurants also are closed, on rare occasions, through a formal hearing process. In the Tampa district not a single restaurant has been closed that way this year.

Changing the system

Keep a chronically dirty restaurant in Florida and you might have to pay a fine. Keep a dirty restaurant in California, Texas and Maryland and you might go to jail.

Officials in those states say their criminal laws are used only in extreme cases, but just having them on the books is a deterrent.

Restaurant owners don't want a criminal record or the publicity a trial could bring so "they take notice and clean up pretty fast," said Chris Wogee, compliance specialist for California's Department of Health Services.

"This is a very highly competitive tourist place," he said. "Florida is too, they shouldn't fool around down there."

North Carolina doesn't bother with fines. Any restaurant that scores below 70 on a 100-point scale is immediately closed, and restaurants rack up more points for repeat offenses.

Other tactics used elsewhere include posting inspections or grades and publicizing inspection results in the media.

"It really does help," said Richard Siegel, head of inspections for Washington D.C. "Restaurants don't like to be in the newspaper. That's the kiss of death."

Restaurants in the District of Columbia that score 69 or below on a 100-point scale are closed and identified in the Washington Post each week.

What would it take for restaurants in Florida to post scores, grades or inspection reports?

BPR could order it done. Officials say calculating scores and posting grades wouldn't be hard. Or lawmakers could mandate it.

Scionti, who was in the restaurant business for years, then taught school before joining BPR, said publicizing results of restaurant inspections would do more than anything else to force a dirty restaurant to clean up. "That's very powerful," he said.

But that isn't BPR's official position. The agency doesn't favor a posting system, said Towey, the spokesman.

"You're using ridicule and humiliation," he said, "to accomplish a good thing."

How a restaurant is inspected

State inspectors make surprise visits to restaurants, armed with thermometers, flashlights, chemical test strips, pens and blank inspection forms. They use a 57-item list that covers such areas as food protection; food equipment and utensils; sewage; plumbing; garbage and refuse disposal; insect, rodent and animal control; floors, walls and ceilings; lighting; safety; and ventilation.

Inspector Ron Watson washes his hands before an inspection. Inspectors make sure hand-washing sinks are where they should be, have hot water and are stocked with soap and paper towels. They also watch to see that employees know when to use them.

Watson checks food temperatures, one of the most critical items on the checklist. Hot food must be kept at 140-degrees or higher; cold food, 45-degrees or below.

Watson watches a dish-washing machine run through its cycles. Inspectors make sure the water is hot enough and that there is enough sanitizing solution.

Inspector Jerry Provost checks under cooking equipment for dirt. "Clean dirt," or dirt that is fresh, is OK as long as it is cleaned up after the frenzy of meal preparation is over. But inspectors take a dim view of what they call "dirty dirt," or dirt that obviously has been around awhile.

Provost checks inside an ice machine to make sure a scoop with a handle is being used and that the handle is not touching the ice. He also makes sure there's no mold inside the machine.

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