Make a checklist of the easy compliance areas, plus more advice for staying in the clear.
Marnie Swedberg is no stranger to the bad health report. "We run things clean and to code, but inspectors have to write you up on something," says Swedberg, who owns two restaurants in Warroad, Minnesota. "My all-time favorite citation was for being 'too clean.'"
Sounds like a joke, but it's not. Former New York City health inspector Mark Nealon has his favorite, too. "There was a McDonald's drive-through window. One inspector decided that every time the window opened, it was no longer a vermin-proof situation, since something could fly through."
Nealon now heads up New York City-based S.A.F.E. Restaurants Consulting, where he helps restaurant owners find their way through the complicated health inspection maze. Here he offers advice for bouncing back from a bad inspection.
What's the worst you've ever seen?
"I've been in places where there were really bad rodent infestations. Those were the worst. They'd be out in the open in the daytime—rats and mice. They are nocturnal, so if you see them in the daytime, you know they are pretty bad.
How should restaurant owners look at health inspections?
"Often there is a battle line between the restaurant industry and the health department. Restaurants think the health department is just out to get them. Ideally, it is supposed to be a symbiotic relationship between the restaurants and the health department, where everybody is striving for the same common good. That does exist in a lot of places."
How can a restaurant owner make that happen?
"Of course you have very little control over how the inspectors go about things. But you still can try to have a good friendly rapport as soon as they walk through the door. The inspector knows that 1 o’clock in the afternoon is your business time: They don't need to hear that from you. You don’t start off adversarial. You try to establish some human to human connection."
Can I buy them lunch?
"There is usually a legal amount they can accept, like a hot coffee or a cold drink. But they are told from day one: 'You will go to jail.' So they are skewed to think that if you offer anything, you are trying to pull something over on them. So it’s better just to greet them with a smile.
What can they cite?
"They look at everything from food temperature to food handling to storage. They look at the workers' habits, their cleanliness. Something as small as a fly in the kitchen can be written up as vermin activity.
How to prepare?
"Have a checklist of basic things you never want to get caught for because they are dumb and they are easily controlled. Make sure the refrigerators always have thermometers in them. Make sure the light bulbs are always covered. That's easy to miss, if someone changes a bulb and forgets to put on the cover. Or there are sign violations: If I had a nickel for every time somebody stole an 'employees wash hands' sign from the bathroom! I don't know why they do it, but it happens all the time. If you get busted on things like that, it's your own fault."
How to handle a violation?
"It will vary across the country. Sometimes there will be a follow-up inspection, and if the violation is repeated, you will pay a fine. In New York City, there is no second chance, you go right to court, you get a fine, you get a letter grade in your window. Ideally, you’d talk to the inspector about how things can be fixed for the future. Take food temperature. The inspector really should plot out how to take that food out of the refrigerator, how long the food should sit once it is out, and how to keep track of it. You want to talk that through with them."
What about reputation management?
"It's hard because word of mouth could make or break a restaurant. With the technology today, one person has a bad experience, they post it on their Facebook page, and then everybody knows about it. What can you do? First, you cross your fingers and hope that time goes very fast, that people will have a way of forgetting things. Unless you are a big place with your own PR department, it is just one of those things you have to live with.
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Should you respond to internet posts?
"I have never thought so. You will never win a battle by telling someone it was just a little bit of mice droppings. All they hear is: 'Mice! Ahhh!' It’s better just to work with the inspector, to have that cooperative relationship from the beginning."