See all FM-area restaurant inspection reports: Inspectors say they educate first, regulate second
WEST FARGO - Pierre Freeman has a whole kit of gadgets he uses to inspect the cleanliness of area restaurants.
“You kind of get a feel for some people that they may not be fully honest, or they may not even know, and they may be nervous,” said Freeman, who’s been an environmental health practitioner with Fargo Cass Public Health since November but has prior experience working in law enforcement.
“So you have to kind of gauge that,” he said, “and that’s getting to know that person and getting to know those managers very well. It really is an act of people observation.”
In Cass County, 194 of 627 food service establishments had at least one critical violation during health inspections from June 10, 2013, through June 24 of this year, according to data requested by The Forum.
In Moorhead, Dilworth and Glyndon, 76 of 143 establishments had at least one critical violation over that same time span.
Critical violations are usually related to items that could cause foodborne illness and may stem from problems with food temperature, washing hands or keeping food preparation equipment and surfaces clean.
Core violations are less serious and usually relate to general sanitation and facility maintenance issues, such as dirty floors or improper lighting. Clay County reports refer to core violations as “noncritical.”
In Cass County, 394 of 627 eateries had at least one core violation, and 206 establishments had no violations at all.
In Moorhead, Dilworth and Glyndon, 132 of 144 had at least one noncritical violation, and 10 establishments had no violations.
Health officials and restaurant owners in both counties said the image of health inspectors has improved over the past few decades.
Whereas they were seen as “stiff regulators” before, now they try to be educators, said Michelle Zins, an environmental health practitioner for Fargo Cass Public Health.
“We don’t want to walk into a place and people get scared,” Zins said. “We want to be approachable. We want people to ask us questions instead of doing things that maybe aren’t the right thing but were too scared to come to us to ask.”
The most common critical violation in Cass County over the past year was related to properly date-marking food and/or keeping potentially hazardous food at a proper temperature. Eateries were dinged 181 times for that violation, some multiple times over multiple inspections.
In Clay County, the violation was issued 43 times over the past year.
Any food prepared in the kitchen has to be used within seven days, Zins said. A restaurant can be flagged for that if just one item of food doesn’t have a date label on it, which is why the violation happens so often, she said.
“It’s not that they’re not treating their food appropriately, it’s just that there could be a container of coleslaw not date-marked, or something like that,” she said.
Potentially hazardous food also has to be kept either above 135 degrees or below 41 degrees. It can only be out of that temperature range for a maximum of four hours before it has to be thrown away.
The second-most common critical violation in Cass County was dirty food contact surfaces, like a prep table, can opener blade or meat slicer. That violation was cited 72 times over the past year in Cass County and 50 times in Clay County.
O’Leary’s Pub, 808 30th Ave. S., Moorhead, had the most critical and core violations of any restaurant in Clay or Cass counties, with 13 critical and 43 core violations over three inspections. The critical marks included several dings for not date-marking food and dirty food contact surfaces.
Jonathan Sands, a kitchen manager at O’Leary’s, said new owners took over the pub in January, and he acknowledged that “there were definitely issues” before he was hired in March.
“I think these issues have been resolved, and we’re only going to go up,” Sands said.
The pub was cited with six critical violations after a March 11 inspection. A return inspection was conducted 10 days later, during which the critical violations dropped to two.
“We’re really just trying to change our name here,” Sands said.
Casey’s General Store at 2002 25th St. S., Fargo, had four critical violations in one inspection, the highest ratio of critical dings per inspection in Cass County.
Brian Johnson, vice president of finance and corporate secretary for Casey’s, pointed out that the inspection took place on June 3, about two weeks after Casey’s took over the local Stop-N-Go stores.
Data shows that the Stop-N-Go store at that location was inspected on Nov. 22, and was flagged for two critical and two core violations.
Johnson said the next round of inspections will go “quite well” after Casey’s has had time to fully implement its policies and procedures in the former Stop-N-Go sites.
“All the issues have been addressed,” Johnson said. “Quite honestly, Casey’s prides itself on our history of cleanliness.”
Babb’s Coffee House, 604 Main Ave., Fargo, was second worst in Cass, with seven critical violations over two inspections, or a ratio of 3.5 per inspection. Babb’s also had the most critical violations of any other restaurant in the county over the past year. The coffee shop was flagged for violations such as not date-marking foods, improper hand-washing and keeping food contact surfaces clean. Joel Onsurez, a manager at Babb’s, said they teach proper cleaning policies, but it’s difficult to maintain when you have high turnover.
“The food itself is fine,” he said. “It’s just a matter of educating employees on protocol. But, again, by the time you get them educated, they quit, so you start all over again.”
In Moorhead, Sunset Lanes, 620 Highway 75 N., had six critical violations in one inspection, tied for the worst ratio in Clay County. The dings included not properly date-marking food, not cleaning the inside of the ice machine and not having a designated hand sink near the food prep area.
Owner Mike Emerson said Sunset Lanes wasn’t in the best condition when he bought it three years ago. He spent about $20,000 last year upgrading the kitchen.
He said a new hand sink will be installed soon and that the ice machine is professionally cleaned every six months, but he said sweeping renovations to an old building can be expensive.
“What we’re trying to do is obey the law but also try to just keep a mom-and-pop type business open,” he said. “That’s where we’re struggling.”
Crave Burger Co., 2501 8th St. S., Moorhead, also had six critical violations in one inspection. The eatery was dinged for not having a certified food manager on staff, not labeling spray bottles with their contents and for not having a proper sanitizing dispenser in the kitchen’s three-compartment sink, among other things.
Troy Thomson, who owns Crave, Extreme Pita and 9 Iron Bar and Grill, said some of the problems extended from when the building was remodeled from an Extreme Pita into Crave last year. The burger joint opened last Aug. 5 and the inspection occurred Aug. 9.
After the inspection, Ecolab fixed the sink, sanitizer and spray bottles, and the restaurant has a certified manager now, Thomson said.
“We don’t prepare for health inspections, per se, just because, for one, we never know when they are,” he said. “We want to try to practice food safety all the time.”
Power of observation
By state law, Fargo Cass Public Health must inspect each food service license holder once a year, but as an unwritten rule, inspectors try to visit at least twice a year.
Minnesota’s inspection requirements vary depending on the type of eatery, but Clay County tries to inspect every place once a year, said Bruce Jaster, the county’s director for environmental health.
In a recent mock inspection of Sandy’s Donuts in West Fargo, inspector Freeman stood near the front counter to make sure all the workers had their hair covered. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his own white hairnet.
First stop on the inspection is the hand-washing sink. Freeman cranked on the hot water and pumped soap into his palm.
“If I’m not washing my hands, how can I expect them?” he said. As he dried his hands, he again quietly observed employees.
Inspections for a smaller kitchen like Sandy’s might take 45 minutes to an hour, so inspectors only get a snapshot of how the business operates.
“Use every moment you get to observe everything you can,” Freeman said.
With his experience in law enforcement, Freeman said he likes to start in one place and eventually make a circle back to where he started. As he goes along, he uses a thermometer to probe meats and soups, and small slips of test paper to check the strength of sanitizer.
It would be impossible to scan every inch of a kitchen, so Freeman looks for what he calls “indicators,” or clues that staff might not be keeping up with cleanliness.
At Sandy’s, he used a small, silver flashlight to illuminate the floor tiles in the corner of the kitchen and hidden under shelving. They were spotless, which means the staff likely does a good job cleaning the entire floor, not just visible areas, he said.
Most inspections are unannounced, so Freeman acknowledges that he might walk into an eatery right after lunch rush, which means the floor may be dirty or some items disheveled.
That’s why he brings the store manager with him during inspections so he can ask questions and make sure proper cleaning policies are in place.
“It’s inevitable,” he said of dirty floors. “After I cook, I’ve got stuff on my floor. But we all clean at a certain point, and that’s going back to the policies that they have in place.”
A huge part of the job is building good working relationships with managers and owners. A sour relationship, he said, means managers are less likely to listen and learn.
After he’s done in the kitchen, Freeman heads to the lobby and whips out a laptop to type up a report. He likes to leave positive notes, a lesson he learned from being a father.
“My kids will never learn to do good things unless I praise them on the good things,” he said. “Positive reinforcement and positive feedback will go 10 times further than negative slamming.”
There are cases when managers won’t listen, and steps have to be taken to temporarily close a restaurant if the public’s health is at risk. Jaster said he can only recall one Clay County restaurant in his 27 years with the county that was shut down for health reasons.
Zins could also only think of one time that it’s happened in Cass County. Inspectors suspended the food license of the Grand Buffet last year, and it never reopened, she said.
“When we have to be the enforcer, we will,” Jaster said. “But we’re out there to try and assist these people and make them understand what they’re doing has an effect on a lot of people.”
Mark Ostlund, who’s owned Sandy’s Donuts for almost 31 years, said he agrees with that. He said there’s no “mad rush” to start scrubbing when an inspector walks through the door.
“He’s not here to catch us. That’s not his intent,” Ostlund said. “He’s here to train us to do it right.”