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Watch what you eat: Consistency, cleanliness are paramount to good sanitation ratings

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Donna Stephens, owner and operator of The Yellow House bed and breakfast in Waynesville, is a stickler for cleanliness.

A former professional chef for a catering company in Washington, D.C., and attorney for 16 years prior to that, Stephens understands the potential ramifications of poor sanitation, from making a patron sick to a restaurant earning a bad reputation and thereby losing business.

Her standards mean that The Yellow House routinely scores more than 100 points on health inspections — possible thanks to Stephen’s status as a certified food manager, which earns her two extra points with each inspection.

This last go around, The Yellow House scored a 101.5. The cause of the half-point deduction? Dust on a ceiling fan blade. It’s marginal, but Stephens isn’t satisfied. She wants her 102 back. And she most likely will get it.

“When we get busy, like in the summer or the fall seasons, it would be easy to say, ‘Oh I’ll get the floor tomorrow,’ but you can’t,” Stephens said.

Breakfast service at The Yellow House ends at 10:30 a.m. and on Friday and Saturday, the only two days of the week during which dinner is served, cooking begins at 2 p.m. In between, Stephens cleans.

“You’re constantly cooking and cleaning, and cooking and cleaning,” she said.

In addition to the daily routine, the parts of the kitchen get a special weekly deep cleaning. And if that weren’t enough, Stephens is vigilant about maintaining food temperatures once dishes leave the kitchen and hit the buffet table.

“My thermometer is always in my sleeve,” Stephens said.

Some foods may seem like obvious potential carriers of disease — chicken, pork, unwashed vegetables — while others the public may perceive to be routinely safe are not, like potatoes.

“They’re not, they’re breeding grounds,” Stephens said. “They’re a starch, a sugar. Bacteria love that.”

Stephens’ knowledge and experience have made her selective about where she goes when she goes out to eat. She uses restaurants’ health inspection ratings — usually posted in a highly visible location near the door — as her first line of defense.

“I look everywhere I go,” Stephens said.


It’s safe ... according to who?

The health inspectors in charge of giving sanitation ratings to restaurants are hired on a county-by-county basis. Generally speaking, an inspector carries a four-year college degree, most likely having majored in a science-related field.

A new inspector comes on as an intern, and enrolls in the state’s six-week long course, which runs the gamut of environmental health from food service to water safety to sewage. After passing the course, the intern inspector must perform 40 practice inspections.

“They start out following an experienced inspector and then gradually that experienced inspector fades back and lets this person take the lead,” said Susan Grayson, head of the Dairy and Food Protection Branch of the Division of Environmental Health in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.

The intern goes on to work in conjunction with a regional health supervisor who joins in for two to three days of inspections. The intern and regional supervisor each perform an inspection of a restaurant and compare grade sheets.

If the regional supervisor is satisfied with the intern’s grading capabilities, the intern is given a letter of authorization to perform inspections solo. Within three years, the new inspector must complete the registered sanitarian’s exam — a national test, which in North Carolina also includes an essay and an interview. In subsequent years, inspectors must complete 15 hours of continuing education to maintain their license.

High standards for what may often be a thankless job have resulted in inspector shortages throughout the state.

“It can be difficult for counties to attract people with the right qualifications,” Grayson said.

For example in Haywood County, which boasts more restaurants than Jackson, Macon or Swain, there are only three inspectors. Jackson has five and Macon three.

“That usually is enough to cover food and lodging in our county,” said Pat Muse, environmental health program specialist over the food and lodging program for the Macon County Health Department.

But as continued growth statewide places a strain on the system, state officials are making moves to change the frequency with which inspections are done.

Risk-based inspections are designed to evaluate restaurants based on the type of food service they perform. Cook-and-serve restaurants are less dangerous than those that cook, chill, re-heat and serve, Grayson said.

Several restaurants may have chill and re-heat processes in their service. For example, making stock — be it chicken, beef, fish or vegetable — ahead of time to use in dishes would be a chill and re-heat process.

If the proposed legislation is passed, cook and serve restaurants will be inspected less than chill and re-heat restaurants, lowering the number of inspections needed statewide. Currently restaurants are inspected on a quarterly basis.

But some inspectors don’t see the potential change as a solution.

“I do not like the risk-based system,” said Charles Stephens, environmental health supervisor for the Jackson County Department of Public Health. “We look at those things anyway. We’re not going to worry about the garbage can being dirty when you’ve got temperatures that are out (of compliance).”

Food must be stored and served at regulated temperatures. For example, hot food must be held at 140 degrees. A recent inspection at La China Poblona in Franklin found items to be too cold. Rice came in at 114 degrees, pork at 88 degrees, re-fried beans at 77 degrees and steak at 70 degrees. The deficiency resulted in a five-point deduction on the restaurant’s score, which totaled 82 — a low B.

However, Grayson argued that the risk-based system will give inspectors more time to work with restaurants that register low inspection scores, helping owners and employees learn how to do it better. Now the system does not mandate that restaurants make improvements if they bring in a low score.

“You do not have to clean up,” Grayson said.

A score would have to fall below 70 before a restaurant would be shut down, unless there was an imminent health risk such as overhead sewer lines leaking onto food preparation tables, Grayson said. So if a restaurant owner was happy with his 72, he could keep it.

“On some occasions, we run across an operator who doesn’t care,” Grayson said.


Turning it around

On Nov. 17, 2005, Prime Sirloin Steakhouse in Franklin scored a 77.5 on their quarterly inspection. The score, posted prominently by the door like all scores, drove customers away, causing the restaurant to lose approximately $5,000 a week in sales.

The inspection was a fluke, said general manager Terry Collins.

“It was a matter of us having managers in charge that let little things go and not paying attention,” Collins said. “You can have little things that actually have very little bearing on the public’s health, but flat tear you up on a health inspection.”

Collins is a partner in a company that owns several restaurants in other counties and other states. He and his Prime Sirloin partner both were out of town busy opening other restaurants, and had put a temporary manager in charge. The result was somewhat of a fish out of water.

“It’s not like he doesn’t know what to do,” Collins said. “He has his own restaurant in Cherokee, where he got a 96.”

For example, the temporary manager didn’t know how to properly load one of the dishwashing machines at Prime Sirloin — at his own restaurant he had a different model. Some equipment waiting to be disposed of out back also resulted in deductions.

“It was more of a detail thing than a filthy store,” Collins said.

Collins and his partner were determined to get their A rating back. They re-educated their management team and staff and requested a re-inspection — a right all restaurant owners have. On re-inspection, the restaurant scored at 98.5.

Restaurant owners say that often the problem comes down to teaching management and staff why health and safety measures are important. Employees might not want to comply with regulations because they might seem frivolous and overly strict — no personal drinks near the food, if a cleaning product is used, it goes back where it came from. Also, there might be a lack of pride, as the restaurant is not their own, and the employment little more than a job.

However, for Yellow House owner Donna Stephens, that’s no excuse.

“If they don’t get it, they don’t work here,” she said.

Collins recommended that restaurant owners make a schedule and stick to it to curb any desire to cut corners.

“Implement cleaning standards and do them every single day of the week,” he said.

And if employees won’t listen, call in the health inspectors — think of it like kids who don’t want to do the things their parents tell them to do. Have a friend tell them to do the exact same thing, however, and they’ll listen just because the person telling them to do it isn’t a parent.

“We will do an in-house service,” said Charles Stephens, of the Jackson County Department of Public Health. “If they will get their employees together, we’ll go in and address those issues that they’re losing points on routinely.”


It’s all about perspective

While inspectors may all be subject to the same state training now, this was not always the case.

When Macon County health specialist Pat Muse was learning how to be an inspector, he worked in Henderson County and learned how to do things their way. Centralized training reduces inspection discrepancies from county to county, but the fact of the matter is that humans perform inspections.

“Usually if you see a difference, it’s in rule interpretation,” Muse said. “It is subjected to how each person perceives things.”

Prime Sirloin general manager Collins saw the variation of rule interpretation first hand at a restaurant he ran in Morganton. The restaurant had been open for eight years and always passed with flying colors.

When a new inspector came in — one who had formerly worked as a septic tank inspector — he slapped the restaurant with a host of structural deficiencies. To come into compliance with the new inspector’s orders, the restaurant would have been closed for three days and faced thousands of dollars in repair costs.

Collins contacted the chief inspector and a re-inspection was done. Not too long after, the new inspector went back to his old job.

An owner or manager’s attitude also may factor into an inspection report, Collins said.

“If you ignore a health inspector and they feel like you’re ignoring them, you’re going to get slaughtered,” he said. “If you’re showing a true concern to get it right, they’ll work with you.”

Muse agreed, saying that inspectors learn who will and will not follow the rules, from personal experience and from talking with other health department staff members.

In Jackson County, environmental health supervisor Charles Stephens said that the department has made a concerted effort to strive for consistency — that inspection reports will be the same, regardless of which inspector is on the job. Stephens said that in the past, the consistency was not there as a result of having too few inspectors. Restaurant owners at least appreciate knowing what they’re dealing with, Stephens said.

“They like the consistency, but they don’t always like the outcome,” he said.

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