Dead Flies in Tequila
The dirt on Ann Arbor restaurants.
For years, my family had Christmas Eve dinner in the Japanese steakhouse side of the old Champion House at Liberty and Fourth Avenue. My kids loved the whole show, with its flaming food and flashing knives. But the last few times we ate there, some of us felt acute gastric distress afterwards--and it wasn't entirely surprising when the place closed in the middle of the night early in 2012 and the proprietors left no forwarding address.
That's how it sometimes goes in the restaurant business, as I discovered from reading the inspection reports on the county's Department of Public Health website. Besides Champion House, the former Sheesh on North Main and the old Szechuan West on Stadium serve as other examples: repeated inspections with lots of critical violations, followed by closure.
Any place can have a bad day, but some places have them time after time. So from the county's inspection database, I put together a list based on each restaurant's performance on its last five inspections.
Five or more critical violations (meaning "fix it now!") or ten or more noncritical violations (meaning "fix it soon!") got a restaurant on my list, as did comments like "will return for follow-up inspection" or "administrative conference needed." I also included on my list any inspection that included a mention of flies, cockroaches, mice, or birds--one of which was found in the backroom of Chan's Garden on Liberty.
Inspectors also found mice feces in Chia Shiang on Packard, a live mouse at Scorekeepers on Maynard, and a dead mouse trapped in a sticky liquid at Ron's Roadside BBQ on Pontiac Trail. They observed cockroaches at Great Shanghai on Jackson, Hello Faz Pizza on West Liberty, and Zamaan Cafe & Bakery on Packard--another place that's since closed. And they reported flies in at least twenty-two restaurants in at least thirty-five separate inspections, thirteen times in liquor bottles, including vermouth, tequila, and Dewar's. They noted flies in two of five inspections at BDs Mongolian Grill
on Main and at Barton Hills Country Club, and in three of five visits to Rush Street, the Blind Pig, and the Clarion Hotel. Altogether, sixty-five restaurants made the big list.
The alarming discoveries mentioned above are hardly typical. Of the 1,100 or so food operations the health department checks regularly, most get few noncritical violations and fewer critical violations. Seven places had no critical violations at all in my five-inspection cycle (see "The Seven Best," opposite page). Nor were all sixty-five places on my list equally troubled. Just seven others accumulated a dozen or more critical violations over five inspections and forty or more noncritical violations (see "The Seven Worst").
I also interviewed inspectors and restaurant owners--those who would talk. Folks who get comments like "Kitchen looks great!" are thrilled to talk, but folks with "dead flies in tequila" are understandably less eager.
The first thing I learned is that restaurant inspectors are called sanitarians.
"The name goes back to the forties or fifties," explains Al Hauck, the county's senior sanitarian, who's been on the job for thirty-two years. "We're part of the county's Environmental Health Division, and we're registered with the state like registered nurses."
Hauck meets me with three of his eight sanitarians in the Western Washtenaw County Service Center just down the road from the Big Boy on Zeeb: Craig Hanton with twenty-three years on the job, Denise Bernbeck with eighteen, and Charles Yet with seven.
"The state requires at least some college science courses," Yet explains of the standards expected of sanitarians. "I've got a BS in environmental health."
"To be registered, the state makes you take a rigorous exam," adds Bernbeck, "as in 'Oh, my God!' rigorous."
"And they like it if you keep up your continuing education," concludes Hanton.
Most restaurants they inspect pass easily, but only a few get glowing comments. To discover how they do it, I interviewed the owners of three places whose inspection reports included notes of praise: Bandito's on South Fourth ("Excellent Inspection"), the Blue Nile on East Washington ("Overall Great Inspection"), and the Lunch Room, which shares the Mark's Carts kitchen on West Liberty ("Kitchen looks great, thank you for all your efforts").
It helps that they know approximately when they'll be inspected.
"It's every six months, so we can predict," says Kanwar Sandhanwalia of Bandito's, "though I'd prefer it if they didn't come every six months, but say they come on October 1, maybe they should come again on October 14. Then you'd find out how clean the restaurants really are."
"We've got to inspect every one hundred and eighty days," explains Hanton. "We're audited by the state if it goes beyond that."
"We don't know exactly when they're coming," says Phillis Engelbert from the Lunch Room, "but it's a lot: twice a year for each cart and once for the kitchen [the eight carts share]. So we act like every single day is an inspection day."
What gets inspected?
"Everything," laughs Habte Dadi of the Blue Nile, "starting from the bar and going through the kitchen to the coolers to the dining room."
"They check every corner with flashlights," adds his partner, Almaz Lessanework with a smile.
"They look at our labeling and at the expiration dates on the food," says Engelbert. "They look at our storage to make sure everything is six inches off the floor. They look at how you wash your dishes to make sure there's complete separation of dirty and clean dishes. They look to see if employees handling ready-to-eat food are wearing gloves. They look to make sure things are cooked at appropriate temperatures and at how quickly things cool, and they look at your cooling methods."
"It's not tense," says Sandhanwalia of an inspection. "It would be if things were going bad. But if you're doing the right thing, it's no problem."
"It is tense," says Lessanework, "particularly when they come during Restaurant Week."
How long an inspection takes depends on the place's size--"maybe half hour for a church," says Hauck, "eight hours for Weber's or the Sheraton"--and on what the sanitarian finds. "If things go smoothly, it goes fast," says Yet. "Usually it's three or four hours for a Main Street restaurant. It only goes slow if there're problems."
"It takes her forty-two minutes to an hour here," says Sandhanwalia. "She knows what she's looking for, so it doesn't take that long. But I have seen her sitting in other restaurants writing them up for hours." Being in the business, he won't name them.
The key to cleanliness is who's running the shop, be it the owner or the manager. "The person in charge is the most important thing," says Yet. "They drive the staff to do the right thing," says Hanton. "They buy into the importance of it, and they get them to want to do it because it's the right thing to do for business."
Bandito's solves that problem the old-fashioned way. "This is a family-owned restaurant," says Sandhanwalia, "so me and my mom and my wife and even my dad, two or three of us are always here."
"If the manager's not there, there's a lot of potential for health code violations," says Engelbert. "And you've got to be an educator. There's a lot to learn, and it's a steep learning curve."
Systems are almost as important. "Chains have rows of three-ring binders full of standard operating procedures," says Hauck. "At small places, the procedures are more basic. This is where the person in charge comes in. They need to remind employees what the procedures are. Some are diligent; others, not so much."
"They're very helpful and useful and make a lot of sense," says Engelbert of standard operating procedures. "They're a guide for safe food and healthy food. We don't want somebody to get sick eating out."
Lessanework from the Blue Nile agrees. "Aside from making money, our major concern is the customer's health."
Sandhanwalia says Bandito's is clean "because I like to eat where it's clean. I like going to restaurants where I can touch the salt and pepper shakers without getting filthy. And we do it on our own. There's no cleaning service." He admits where there's food, mice and insects will always be nearby. "If you go back in the alley, there're mice. We have regular maintenance to keep them out [of the building]. It's like the [stove] hood. You maintain it, you don't get grease building up and falling down on the food."
Cleanliness apparently doesn't get in the way of success. Sandhanwalia says Bandito's is "busy with a capital 'B.'" And business is so good at the Lunch Room that Engelbert and her partner are leaving Mark's Carts and plan to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Kerrytown in June.
All three owners agree inspections are necessary. "We are human, and we forget, so we need someone to remind us," says Lessanework. Sandhanwalia agrees "one hundred percent. Do you think a physical is necessary?"
"At first glance they might not make sense," says Engelbert. "But they are reasonable and necessary. I read the restaurant reports, and there are places I won't go." Like Sandhanwalia, she won't say where.
Since I'm not in the business, I'll say where I won't go. Not Cafe Felix on Main with sixteen critical and fifty-seven noncritical violations in two and a half years, and not the Clarion Hotel on Jackson with seventeen critical and forty-one noncritical violations in the same period, including flies in the Dewar's spout. I'd not go to Smokehouse Blues on Washtenaw with twenty critical and forty-two noncritical violations in its last five inspections--but like Champion House, Sheesh, and Szechuan West, it closed.
Most restaurateurs won't discuss their violations. Chia Shiang on Packard racked up forty-one noncritical and sixteen critical violations with mice feces spotted in one inspection and evidence of mice in another. But when asked for an interview, the owner says she's "not interested in something like that." At the Barton Hills Country Club--twelve critical and forty-one noncritical violations including those flies in the liquor bottles--the manager asks for more information via email then never replies.
The only restaurateur to agree to an interview is Brandon Johns of the Grange Kitchen & Bar. I'd eaten there once and thought it looked quite clean and was surprised it had accumulated fifteen critical and forty noncritical violations. A big man with huge forearms and curly salt-and-pepper hair, Johns proves frank about why he got them and what he's done to correct them.
"They got us on faulty equipment," he says. "We opened with a lot of old equipment [from a previous restaurant in the building]. We had refrigerators that cooled to forty-five instead of forty-one degrees, and the new standards say it has to be forty-one. So we've purchased four new refrigerators in three-and-a-half years. We also had a faulty dishwashing machine, and that's been replaced and gets checked every day."
Johns concedes the problems weren't all mechanical. "Some employees were being careless, not labeling stuff or not labeling stuff correctly, not checking the chlorine level on the dishwasher, drinking on the line from cups without tops. So we put systems in and made checklists of things that need to be done, and now we make sure they do such things.
"And last time they got us on flies," Johns continues. "You've got to find out where they breed to get rid of them, and sometimes you really have to search. We had a thirty-year-old sink with standing water behind it, and, when we ripped out the old sink, that got rid of the flies."
He doesn't blame the messenger. "Our inspector is great. She explains things as she goes and goes over it all again at the end. It's up to us to correct things, and we do." More recent inspections show improvement, especially in the items Johns notes.
Like the owners of Bandito's, the Blue Nile, and the Lunch Room, the Grange's owner says inspections are "absolutely" necessary. Johns started in the business in the 1990s and says "employees are getting better, and owners and operators are taking it more seriously. The majority of restaurants put a lot of effort into passing, into keeping a clean kitchen and doing it right. I know we do."
Professional ethics forbid the sanitarians from commenting on specific restaurants, but they've spent enough time in them to know why things go right--and wrong.
"Anybody can have a bad day," says Denise Bernbeck. "Three people called in sick, the refrigerator's down, and the dishwasher is on the fritz."
"Plus there's lots of turnover in the restaurant business," says Charles Yet. "Every six months you can have a whole new staff."
"Consistent management helps there," says Craig Hanton. "You're constantly getting new employees, so you've got to be consistently training."
"Most restaurants are typically very good," says Yet, "and most restaurant owners try to do the best job they can. But some are always bad, and it goes back to the person in charge."
Senior sanitarian Al Hauck says "most places get better over time." And he thinks his inspectors deserve some of the credit for that.
"The food code changed in 2000," he explains. "Now the emphasis is on knowledge with a lot of education, and because of education most places are getting better and safer. By far, the vast majority are really good, and the really bad ones have other problems."
The state changed its inspection terminology last fall. Instead of critical and noncritical violations, problems are now divided into priority, priority foundation, and core violations. Priority violations are those that pose a direct risk of food-borne illness, such as improper food temperatures. Priority foundation violations involve anything that could cause a priority violation, such as refrigerators not holding at required temperatures. Core violations are connected to general sanitation and facility maintenance.
"There's a perception out there that you can tell about a place's cleanliness by its appearance," says Hanton. "But it's things like not cooling rapidly enough or storing food at the wrong temperature or putting the wrong date on a package that are likely to get people sick if they're not taken care of. And we make sure those things are taken care of right away."
None of the sanitarians can recall shutting down a restaurant, but "we have had some voluntary closures," Yet says. "I once got a call from staff that their restaurant was still operating when the sewers were backing up. So I talked to the person in charge, and she agreed to close. If not, we would have had to take action."
Among the sanitarians I interviewed, Hanton and Bernbeck still eat out often while Yet prefers to stay home and cook.
"Our job impacts where we eat," says Bernbeck. "We often don't eat in restaurants we inspect."
"Though if we do," adds Hanton, "it's quite a compliment."
The following Calls & letters item appeared in the April 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:
Café Felix has improved
"We have had our share of service issues in the past that I have worked really hard at changing but nothing that warrants a drawing of a cockroach above our name in the local paper," Felix Landrum protested after reading our March story on restaurant inspections. Landrum's Café Felix made our list of places that received the most critical violations over a five-inspection cycle.
"I would like your readers to understand that we are not a dirty place," Landrum emailed, noting that most violations were for things like failing to include a cooking advisory in a chalkboard specials list and bringing in beets from the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. "We have never had a cockroach problem, mice, rats or any other pests," Landrum stressed. "We have had fruit flies over the summer because we kept the front door open, a problem we rectified by simply closing the door."
After a series of steps to improve sanitation, including quarterly meetings with the county health department and establishing staff checklists, Landrum added, Café Felix had just one "priority violation," in the county's new terminology, at its most recent inspection. "Our inspector Charles Yet told us that he was 'very impressed.'
"I have a family with three small children all of which eat here several times a week and have never gotten sick," Landrum added. "I care deeply for the people of Ann Arbor … my wife has taught in the Ann Arbor public schools for 19 years, I donate to Mott's children hospital every year with Save a Heart, the Michigan Theater, every school that has asked for assistance, we're there, the Ann Arbor Art Center, The Ark, and countless more.
"My family and I are part of this community and want nothing more to share my family's heritage with everyone … safely."
[Originally published in March, 2013.]
On August 12, 2013, Felix Landrum wrote:
"You're becoming one of the cleanest restaurants in Ann Arbor, keep up the good work Felix"
--Charles Yet, Washtenaw County health inspector.
Over the past year Cafe Felix has been working very hard to improve our overall health code standards and the hard work has really paid off, receiving only one priority violation 6 months ago and zero on our last inspection! Cafe Felix is becoming a restaurant leader in overall cleanliness.
At Cafe Felix we are committed to working with farmers from our surrounding Michigan communities. Sustainable, local, and organic whenever possible, we work closely with the likes of Mike Werp from Werp Farms in Buckley, Chuck Cornille of Black Oak Farms in Byron, Bob and Mariam at Sparrow Meat Market, several of our local Ann Arbor Farmers Market providers, Eat Fresh Eat Local of Ann Arbor, and many other Midwest families committed to providing our community with high quality, all-natural foods. It is our solemn promise, to continue to seek out the bounty of goods that Michigan provides, in order to create for you nourishing, beautiful, and delicious plates; ones that you can share with your friends and family for years to come.
We hope to share our table with you soon.