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.”
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?”
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.”