Asheville restaurants say they’re hamstrung by health inspections

MAKING THE GRADE: Server Hannah Crawford cleans up at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in West Asheville. Some area restaurateurs advocate for changes to health inspection procedures and scoring to make the process less stressful for business owners and the scores more understandable for customers.
MAKING THE GRADE: Server Hannah Crawford cleans up at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in West Asheville. Some area restaurateurs advocate for changes to health inspection procedures and scoring to make the process less stressful for business owners and the scores more understandable for customers. Photo by Cindy Kunst

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know the drill. It’s the middle of the weekday lunch service, and the place is pretty busy. Just then, the bartender spots someone walking through the parking lot dragging a small roller case. “Health inspector is here!” she calls back to the kitchen, and suddenly everybody’s scrambling to make sure they haven’t overlooked anything. Even the smallest detail — a cup of water in the kitchen without a lid, or an unlabeled bleach bottle — can take points off a restaurant’s score.

The Environmental Health Section of the state Department of Health and Human Services is charged with regulating restaurants and bars; the actual inspections are done by county Health and Human Services staff, who also try to educate restaurant staff and management about the rules. Cafés and bars get inspected once or twice a year, depending on the type of permit they have. But restaurants that prepare food from scratch must undergo four inspections annually. They’re random and can come at any point in the business day, in hopes of getting a look at the restaurant’s standard practices.

In 2012, North Carolina adopted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s 2009 Food Code, and many local restaurateurs say inspections have gotten longer since then while scores have dropped. All scores can be viewed on the county’s website; restaurants that score below 70 get shut down.

“Our scores used to be around 98 and 99, but lately they’ve been as low as 95 and 96,” says Rich Cundiff, who owns and operates Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack. “I’ve had two customers say basically that they wouldn’t come back until they got a call explaining what happened,” he says. “They were obviously distressed and concerned that it would be a safety issue.”

Food grade

Previously, restaurants could earn an additional two points if a staffer had ServSafe restaurant certification; theoretically, a score could be as high as 102. But the update made those classes mandatory, dropping the highest possible score to a flat 100.

“The real irony,” notes Cundiff, “was when my general manager was so depressed because we got a 95, and the health inspector looked at him and said: ‘What’s wrong? That’s a great score!’ It’s only a great score if people know it’s a great score, and right now nobody does. We’re doing better than ever, and we’re so thorough on this, so it’s pretty frustrating when you know you’re doing a better job but your customers think you’re doing a worse one.”

Owner/chef Patrick O’Cain of Gan Shan Station agrees. “When I was cooking in North Carolina five years ago, we were seeing scores of 101-102. But now there are scores of 92 and 93, which are still an A, but the public perception is not there. They’re used to seeing scores that were up near 100. Having the grading system as a number is just silly at this point.”

Restaurant owners like O’Cain want to eliminate the number scores and just go with the letter grades — not to hide anything but to make the system easier for the public to understand.

“It has nothing to do with public health and safety — and everything to do with public perception and a better understanding that, hey, this is a safe place to eat and they’re taking the proper steps, versus a kitchen that might need to do a little more work,” says O’Cain.

Moving the goal post

Local restaurateurs are often reluctant to go on the record discussing health inspections. Many seem to fear that any ruffling of departmental feathers will result in some kind of crackdown. But food and lodging supervisor Felissa Vazquez of the county’s Environmental Health Division disputes the claims that inspections have gotten longer and scores have tanked.

“Prior to the adoption of the food code, our average score here was a 97.81, and the average for last year was 96.44,” says Vazquez, “so it has gone downhill slightly, but I would not say it was significant.” Inspections, she notes, can average anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 hours, with paperwork accounting for about a half-hour. Still, 2 1/2 hours could be the restaurant’s entire lunch service.

“The food code really focuses on what the FDA has identified as the five risk factors that directly contribute to foodborne illness,” Vazquez explains. Those factors are: holding temperatures for food; improper cooking temperatures; reheating leftovers; employee hygiene; and improperly cleaned equipment. During inspections, she continues, “We try to step back and look at processes and overall food handling, which is a little different than the focus was previously.”

The shift, however, has left some local restaurant owners confused.

“It can be something really simple that drops your score,” notes Cundiff. “We had a cook leave a phone sitting on a shelf in the kitchen, and they took a whole point off for that — nobody knew that was against the rules.”

O’Cain echoes that frustration. “A restaurant can have a 95, and it won’t be for a food issue. It might be a labeling issue, for example,” he says. “I just wish they would establish a standard: Every time they come in, it’s something new and different. How are we supposed to do what we’re supposed to do if there’s a moving goal post?”

Modern kitchens

The prime cut of O’Cain’s beef with current Health Department policy is that it hasn’t kept up with technological changes in modern commercial kitchens.

“In my case, specifically, they really seem to be behind the times when it comes to cooking with new processes and ingredients,” he explains. “It seems ridiculous that we have to go through a huge HACCP plan in order to do low-temperature, long cooking.”

Like many other local chefs, O’Cain favors a technique known as sous vide, in which a vacuum-sealed cut of meat is submerged in 140-degree water and slow-cooked for anywhere from two to 48 hours, depending on the cut and its intended use. Developed in France in the 1960s, sous vide employs an immersion circulator to precisely control the temperature. Nearly a dozen Asheville restaurants use sous vide machines regularly, and they all have to clear hazard analysis and critical control points plans with the Environmental Health Division for every recipe involving the technique.

“That’s one of those things that’s consistent every time: We can guarantee that the meat reaches a certain internal temperature that will kill unsafe bacteria,” notes O’Cain. “You can legally take a piece of chicken, put it on the grill, undercook it and serve it, versus cooking it sous vide and ensuring that it won’t be unsafe for someone to consume. It’s ridiculous that in order to do that you have to have a mountain of paperwork to go with it. I suppose they have their reasons, but I would appreciate them being more realistic about the times and understanding something about how kitchens actually work these days.”

Vazquez acknowledges that there was a learning curve for the inspectors in the beginning, but she stresses that enforcement is not the department’s primary focus.

“We try to see ourselves as educators first and regulators second. In order to protect public health and assist the restaurant with a successful inspection, we may take additional time to try to get compliance. If we gain compliance during an inspection, depending on the violation, it could reflect on the grade. So I know that some inspectors may spend a lot of time trying to help restaurants come up with solutions.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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22 thoughts on “Asheville restaurants say they’re hamstrung by health inspections

  1. Jason

    Typical government agency; exploiting to justify their relevancy

    • Lulz

      Exactly. And as we all know, government is the employment agency for the worthless and lazy of society. As more of them become a part of it, they have to justify their insane salaries by passing ever more burdensome and irrelevant laws.

  2. Also important to note: before the update to the food law, over 250 people were poisoned in restaurants in NC in a single month. The last update to our food code took place in 1976. I don’t think anyone is exploiting anyone here — that would require them to be making money off of them. Also, see my previous story about how private clubs are exempt from health inspections and all of the private clubs pleading to get inspections because it reduces their liability (https://mountainx.com/food/turning-a-blind-eye-state-law-exempts-private-clubs-from-health-inspection/). The entire purpose of is to make it easier on the business owner, but it helps to have stable systems of enforcement.

      • Jason Martin

        Ya; Im not sure how hard it is to figure that you exploit for taxpayer $$….. and “HAMSTRING” the private sector…. CONTINUALLY; to justify your agencies relevancy…. the more taxpayer money you get……

        The ALE is NOTORIOUS for this Most specifically here in BEER City…. Because WE R BEER CITY. Look at the press they GET!
        “Wow NC Tax payers! Look at us! Doing our jobs…. busting the bad beer people for drinking a shift beer on the wrong side of the bar at 3am!”

        • adam Arthur

          You comment doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We have Health Inspectors for the good of the community. I have worked in foodservice my entire life, I seen the hassle of a poorly timed inspection first hand, but I have also traveled to countries without rigorous enforcement and as such I have gotten extremely ill on a number of occasions. As Jonathan mentioned earlier, people can and do get sick from dining at suspect kitchens. Sometimes, they even die. As for Sous Vie cooking, it is a wonderful addition to the culinary world, but it also runs the risk of botulism contamination. Certainly the risk is low with proper training, but without inspection, there’s no way to insure that is being done. Now, some folks might suggest the “free market” would take care of any eatery with poor hygienic conventions, but the truth is that it would take a great deal of time, far more than I would deem safe.

          • Jason

            Your comment doesn’t make sense! Restaurants are feeling “hamstrung” OVER BURDENED!
            I don’t think anyone here would choose 3rd world standards, but clearly self serving agency’s go over board more often than NOT.

        • Ron

          That “something” is yet another and another and another paid government position.

        • Scott Rusinko

          Jonathan, is this an op-ed piece? Why offer an opinion that counters others?

          • Huhsure

            Could it be that others’ opinion has no basis in reality? Or are fundamental facts now all up for debate?

          • Scott Rusinko

            @Huhsure it is a rhetorical question, the answer to which your rhetorical question does not provide. Facts and opinion are not one and the same, regardless what side of the aisle you occupy. If Jonathan has done his job, he has provided necessary facts for his readers to make up their own minds. If this is a news article as is suggested by the fact that is not found under the heading “Opinion”, shouldn’t one be able to form his / her own opinion without Jonathan’s help (or yours)? If you want to contend something with someone, bark up another tree please.

          • I’m not expressing an opinion, I am observing a fact. My point is that “exploit” might be the wrong term. These restaurants aren’t being fined. No one is being bribed here, and those “government jobs” would be there with or without the added stress levels towards local restaurants. That’s not an opinion, that’s the way it is.

    • Lulz

      LOL, if you’re so afraid of lawsuits then either you need to be involved in your business more or pay higher wages to attract better people. Problem is that most of the absentee owners is they’re expecting the government to be a stand in for their lack of both. The old Hannah Flannigan’s on Biltmore sanitation grade is the worst I’ve ever seen with a 72 grade. And that’s because the owner wasn’t there and the employees didn’t care. Low wages do that to people especially as they are tasked with all the responsibilities and none of the rewards.

      • luther blissett

        “Low wages do that to people especially as they are tasked with all the responsibilities and none of the rewards.”

        Holy cow, I agree with Lulz on something, even if I disagree on some of the conclusions. Pay peanuts, get salmonella.

        When minimum wage laws are a mess for food service, and health insurance and time off aren’t guaranteed, people will go into work sick because they can’t afford to lose a shift (or annoy the manager assigning the next shift) and that’s how you end up with really serious problems that the typical inspection model can’t measure.

        There’s a “freakonomics” argument that you should avoid restaurants with the very highest safety grades, because it implies they spend more time tidying their kitchens to rack up the points than they do on the food. That seems a bit too savvy for me, but that might be because I got food poisoning from one of Asheville’s best-known restaurants last year.

    • Ron

      “over 250 people were poisoned in restaurants in NC in a single month”.
      Was this every month, multiple events, or a single event? Reference please.
      That could still easily happen today at a big buffet restaurant.

        • Ron

          FAKE NEWS. NOT TRUE. I knew that stat sounded fishy.

          Read the article and the stats. This is NC-wide “what they ate” (quote unquote) and is not “poisoned in restaurants” (as you state). That 250 (and I can’t even add up the numbers to get to 250) includes 62 Campylobacter and 106 Salmonella. How many of those were folks cooking at home, oblivious to food safety, who got sick by mishandling raw chicken, improperly cooling that huge bowl of potato salad, or not thoroughly cooking that discount hamburger? I’d bet a big percent.

  3. Lulz

    Problem with health inspectors along with everything about the government is they’re college grads instead of being experienced in foodservice. Government is the biggest hamper to business merely because those in charge of regulations have zilch real world experience. And that’s why the government is by far the largest impediment to wealth and is the root cause of poverty.

    • Kurt

      As a health inspector, I think it is important to have a college degree because on any given day I might be explaining the growth rate of C. perfrigens bacteria, discussing radon with a home owner, discussing the sources of elevated blood lead levels in children with a landlord, explaining the effects of copper in drinking water to a well owner, verifying that tattoo artists are taking precautions against bloodborne pathogens, and on and on. A person without a college degree can understand and explain any of these things, but a person with a degree in life or health sciences has a better background to do so.

      Also, “those in charge of regulations have zilch real world experience.” The Food Code that is used in NC is a product of the research done by food scientists, and guided by input from stakeholders like the Conference for Food Protection (CFP), the National Conference on Interstate Milk Shipments, and the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference. Looking at the CFP, you see members from Harris Teeter, The Wisconsin Restaurant Association, Publix, etc. Not surprisingly, industry is really eager to not make their customers ill from the food they prepare.

  4. Will

    O’Cain says “I just wish they would establish a standard: Every time they come in, it’s something new and different. How are we supposed to do what we’re supposed to do if there’s a moving goal post?”.

    There is a standard. It’s FDA Food Code 2009. It’s easily findable on the FDA’s web site. Each finding on his inspection references a particular section of that code. Of the eight findings on his most recent inspection, he had been cited for all eight before, five of them in the immediately preceding inspection.

  5. Scott Rusinko

    Jonathan, thanks for your reply. My point is that you are arguing semantics of the word exploit in order to discount or counter the position of some commenters that there is too much government. With respect, your engagement on this level does a disservice to yourself as a journalist.

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