Most Moorhead restaurants fare well on inspections, but a few stand out for multiple critical violations

MOORHEAD - Dirty floors. Food splattered on the walls. A restaurant that "just overall looks like a pit." Bruce Jaster says he's seen some "filthy dirty" places during his time as a health inspector. Fortunately, most restaurants in the Moorhead ...

MOORHEAD - Dirty floors. Food splattered on the walls. A restaurant that "just overall looks like a pit."

Bruce Jaster says he's seen some "filthy dirty" places during his time as a health inspector.

Fortunately, most restaurants in the Moorhead area don't fall into that description, said Jaster, Clay County's environmental health director.

In a Forum review of 188 food, beverage and lodging inspections conducted in Moorhead from Jan. 1, 2010, to June 15, 2011, inspectors found no critical violations in 58 percent of inspections.

Sixteen inspections yielded five or more critical violations, and a few of those establishments stood out from the rest:


  • Bennigan's Grill & Tavern received 19 critical violations and 37 noncritical violations in two inspections, including 14 critical and 27 noncritical violations during its most recent inspection on Dec. 15, which managers said isn't normal for the eatery. "It's not been food prep issues or food storage issues," said Lori Borgen, Bennigan's administrative manager. "It's basically been our biggest thing is flooring issues."

    Borgen said inspectors found small holes in the epoxy floor that they felt could hold standing water.

    "Really, to be honest with you, I thought they were being very picky," she said.

    The restaurant replaced the epoxy with quarry tile behind the bar and in the cooler and storage areas, Borgen said. It also had to recoat some epoxy flooring and replace chipped tile and grout. The work required the restaurant to close twice, she said.

    "It's been frustrating for us, too, because like I said, we've had to shut down, and we lose our sales. We've spent a lot of money on fixing the flooring. But hopefully we're good for a while anyway," she said.

    The Dec. 15 report indeed cites the flooring issues, but it also includes several critical violations unrelated to building issues. Among them: The dishwasher ­wasn't properly sanitizing, the can opener blade wasn't cleaned between uses, and bare hands instead of gloves or utensils were being used to transfer salads between bulk containers and from containers to plates.

  • China Buffet had the worst single inspection, with 17 critical and 26 noncritical violations on June 20, 2010. But inspection reports show the buffet has since changed ownership - and apparently cleaned up its act, with only three critical violations in the following four inspections. China Buffet manager Chang Ni, whose father owns the restaurant, said the family took control of the buffet after the June 20 inspection and closed it down for remodeling, reopening in July 2010.

    "We just focused on what quality we can bring to our customers, and of course, number one is cleanliness, and that includes not only the food but also the environment," he said. "We're pretty confident that right now we are one of the cleanest restaurants in the Fargo-Moorhead area."

  • The Speak Easy, which briefly closed in 2006 after nearly 40 customers reported illness traced to improper food handling, still isn't having an easy time with inspections, racking up 39 critical and 144 noncritical violations during seven health inspections. However, owner Jim Mercil said - and a March 7 inspection report confirms - that the restaurant's recent violations have been mostly building- and equipment-related.

    Mercil noted that he was nailed repeatedly for not installing two new hand-washing sinks, as well as for an old hood in the bakery and an aluminum cooler floor that inspectors wanted replaced with tile.

    "They keep dinging us for all these little things because we're an older place," he said.

    Mercil said he doesn't care for the critical and noncritical scoring system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Food Code defines critical violations as more likely than other violations to contribute to food contamination, illness and environmental health hazards.

    "Some of the things that are critical ... I just don't believe that," Mercil said. "But some things are obviously very important, temperatures and that kind of stuff. That's the thing - we're not getting dinged for those type of violations."

The March 7 report, the most recent one available, shows three critical violations at Speak Easy: The sanitizer dispenser at the three-compartment sink wasn't putting out the proper dilution of sanitizer for the rag buckets, a "Y" connection at the mop sink for the chemical dispenser ­hadn't been removed to prevent backflow contamination, and the two additional hand-washing sinks hadn't been installed two days past deadline.
Lisa Vatnsdal, Moorhead's neighborhood services manager who supervises the environmental health program, said in an email that the Speak Easy's food and beverage license wasn't suspended "but more frequent re-inspections and financial penalties were utilized to assure that the code violations were corrected."

Change is in the works

For years, Moorhead handled its own food safety inspections. But in late June, the state Health Department terminated a delegation agreement that allowed the city to do its own inspections as long as it met state standards.

The reason: The city was unable to find a qualified replacement for its last inspector, who left around Nov. 1, Vatnsdal said.

Under the agreement, the city had six months to hire a registered sanitarian. In the interim, Clay County staff conducted inspections for the city.

Vatnsdal said Moorhead "went to great lengths" to recruit a sanitarian, but without one already on staff to supervise a new hire's required training, the city struck out.

"It made it difficult for us to recruit, and we tried like everything and couldn't get someone coming in that was fully certified," she said.

The state terminated the agreement and assumed control of Moorhead's inspections, now conducted by a state inspector based in Fergus Falls.


A return to local control is in the works. The Clay-Wilkin Public Heath Board has reached an agreement with the state to have county inspectors cover Moorhead, but it's unclear when that will begin, said Bruce Jaster, Clay County environmental health director.

Vatnsdal said she believes operators prefer a local inspector.

"They develop a good rapport with the inspector, they know what to expect, and they know who to call when they have a question," she said.

Mercil echoed that sentiment.

"When you can't get consistency and stay with the same inspector, the new ones come in, and they just keep nailing you," he said.

Violation severity varies

Jaster and fellow sanitarian Kent Severson conduct inspections for Clay County. Under state law, they're required to inspect each establishment at least once every 12, 18 or 24 months, depending on whether the facility is categorized as high risk, medium risk or low risk, Jaster said.

"But we just do everybody annually," he said.


Inspections are unannounced except in rare instances where the schedule of an establishment, such as a supper club, requires an inspection by appointment, Jaster said.

Inspectors haven't found any violations warranting an automatic closure, Jaster said.

Some critical violations are more severe and urgent than others, he said. For example, not having a certified food manager on site is a critical violation.

"But if the person knows what they're doing, is that going to affect how the food is served and presented to the public? I don't know," Jaster said.

On the more severe side, an inspector who finds food sitting out at 50 to 60 degrees for four hours will order it disposed of immediately. If a dishwasher isn't sanitizing properly or the restaurant loses water pressure, inspectors can shut down the facility until the problems are remedied, Jaster said.

"If we deem it bad enough, we'll stay right there until some things are corrected," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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