For many restaurants, no one—not even the food critic—is more dreaded than the badge-flashing health inspector who scrutinizes the premises and procedures at least once a year. To help ease the process, five operators offer common mistakes, tips to prepare for inspections and ways to ace the test.
LEAH COHEN, CHEF-OWNER, AND BEN BYRUCH, OPERATING MANAGER; PIG AND KHAO, NEW YORK
Pig and Khao on Manhattan’s Lower East Side holds an A rating from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, but it has been temporarily given a B due to past violations.
Byruch estimates the restaurant has paid up to $6,000 annually in related fines. This tally does not include litigating contended violations or losing revenue when an inspection occurs during service. “Inspections often interfere with the dining experience and make guests wait 45 minutes or longer for food,” Cohen says. “For a small business, all the related costs and BS can add up quickly and hurt a restaurant.”
To buy time and spread the word that an inspector is on premise, Pig and Khao workers know to detain the individual at the front of the house for as long as possible. An order is put into the POS system flagged with ‘bingo,’ and that code word is passed verbally among staff. As a courtesy, a staff member will call restaurants on the block to alert them that health inspectors are working in the area.
ROCKY CIRINO, MANAGING DIRECTOR; ALTAMAREA GROUP, NEW YORK
For the past six years, Cirino has worked for Michael White’s New York-based restaurant group, giving him firsthand experience with the former coding rules and the letter-grading system implemented in 2010. “It was a lot easier to not care before,” he admits. “You could get a B or C, pay your fine and get on with your day. There was no visual cue to visitors.”
However, the prominently displayed grades have changed the restaurant game. “It challenges operators to set up systems,” Cirino says, “which is the only way to pass the tests as consistently as possible.”
Even after implementing health department training, monthly in-house reviews and bimonthly exterminations, he has still weathered bad inspections. He recalls one spot inspection when the staff didn’t even have a 15-second warning from the front of the house. “The inspector walked into the kitchen to find my head chef eating a grape at the pass, a cook drinking water from an open container and another cook with no hat on,” Cirino recalls. “To get a B is 14 (to 27) points. That was 16 right there.”
Yet these interactions have helped Cirino develop a levelheaded, pragmatic approach. “A lot of my peers think it’s a far more combative relationship than it should be,” he says. “I say you can never argue against safety.”
Brian Lee, director of operations; Vapiano International LLC, Tysons Corner, Virginia
Despite occasional frustrating inspections, Lee, who has more than 30 years of experience with chains like the Olive Garden and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, doesn’t see the rapport as adversarial. He believes management should foster a positive, welcoming attitude toward inspectors and the inspection process. “They shouldn’t be feared,” he says. “I have a healthy respect for inspectors. They should be viewed as a teammate who is helping you do your job.”
He puts strict systems in place, such as recipes with built-in HACCP standards, line checks done at the beginning of each meal period and semiannual audits at his restaurants to ensure health codes are correctly and consistently followed. “It’s like the coach who does everything right during practice,” Lee says. “On game day, they can sit back and watch the operation run smoothly.”
Silvan Kramer, food and beverage director; The Dupont Circle Hotel, Washington, D.C.
“You have to practice every single day for the possibility of a health inspection,” says Kramer, a two-decade industry veteran. “It’s not something you can get ready for overnight.”
Kramer holds weekly 10-minute training sessions with staff on hygiene-related issues. They include illuminating best practices for food labeling, providing an overview of the cutting boards’ color-coding system, and a ‘first in, first out’ methodology for ingredient use.
He also tours the hotel’s kitchens and the onsite Café Dupont daily to monitor conditions and procedures. Refrigerators are examined for cleanliness and proper temperatures; hot and cold foods are spot checked for cross-contamination; and the premises are monitored for rodents, roaches or fruit flies. “It only takes 10 minutes a day to do an inspection,” he says.
Brian Zenner, executive chef; Oak, Dallas
Zenner has worked in restaurants in Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and Dallas, so he is accustomed to relearning the ropes, which includes acquainting himself with local health codes.
“I’ll call an inspector or the department that oversees the process,” he says, “just to make sure I’m on the right page.”
To ensure his team is compliant, he prefers that staff complete the ServSafe Food Handler Program. “It takes minimal time,” Zenner says, “and that’s invaluable when it comes to properly running a business.”
This training helps create the feeling that inspectors are colleagues, not adversaries. “Be respectful of health inspectors because they’re just trying to do their job for the common good,” he says.
Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based author of numerous books and a food and travel writer.
10 Common Mistakes Health Inspectors Love to Bust Restaurants On
Health codes vary by location, but these issues will usually rack up fines or demerits from coast to coast:
1. Food handlers who aren’t wearing an approved hairnet or hat.
2. Lack of proper food preparation and kitchen safety signage.
3. Eating, chewing gum or drinking in the kitchen.
4. Undated ingredients.
5. Thermometers that are absent or improperly calibrated.
6. Milk steaming wands not cleaned between uses.
7. Open dumpster tops or dirty surrounding areas.
8. Proteins or produce marinating at room temperature.
9. Bare hands touching ready-to-eat food.
10. Chipped, cracked or broken dishes and utensils not taken out of service.
Whether you’ve been fined, downgraded or shut down, here are ways to save face.
1. Address issues while the health inspector is on premise. For example, if a kitchen staff member is missing a hat, dispense the appropriate garb.
2. Take notes during the inspection by documenting violations and potential remedies. If you don’t understand a violation, ask questions.
3. Don’t argue with the health inspector.Such behavior might aggravate the situation. If you think any of the violations are bogus, pursue remediation through the appropriate channels.
4. Don’t procrastinate. Aim for perfection on the re-inspection.
5. Be preventative. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes daily for a senior staff member to inspect the operation to ensure that all health codes are properly followed.
6. Be proactive. Any media statements concerning health violations should be brief and reassuring. Apologize for inconveniences and, when possible, offer assurance that no customers became sick.
7. Consider retaining an independent consultant to conduct spot inspections. Use the help as coaching to beat the next inspection.