Served: Health Department Hell (Part 1)


Hannah Howard has worked in several restaurants, but she's made the switch to the grocery side of the industry. She's now a cheesemonger for a small market chain, and will share her experience here.

20080616-servedbug.jpgI was still new to my restaurant when our former chef mentioned that we had a looming health inspection.

I offered my help. I had ample experience with health inspectors and the like at my Corporate Steakhouse. As a training manager, I sometimes spent what seemed like half my day taking the temperature of meat, veggies, and prepared food in our multiple walk-ins with a fancy device. The years of records of effective refrigeration would come to our defense if someone accused us of giving them a foodborne illness.

"No thanks," the chef said about the inspection, "I got it under control."

So I was surprised when he called in a panic one early (for me) morning. "Do you have a ServSafe certificate?" ServSafe is a national food safety training organization that holds classes and issues certifications. The restaurant needed a certified employee to pass inspection.

I had taken the ServSafe test in California, but the certificate was at my former restaurant, not in my hands. "I can call and have it sent to me," I told him.

"We need it now."

I called the restaurant, who directed me to the corporate office. They could have it to me in three business days. That wouldn't do.

My boyfriend-chef Micky had his New York food safety certificate, and it was his day off. We were in luck. We made our way to the restaurant and told the peppy inspector that Micky was now starting as a sous chef at our restaurant. It was a lie that foreshadowed the truth—several weeks later, Micky took his current place at the helm of the kitchen.

Our Turn

The owners had left this health inspection business in the hands of our former chef, so they were surprised to find out when it was time to reapply for a liquor license that they had not passed the inspection.

There were a few problems. We needed to install door sweeps on our side doors and a screen door behind the kitchen. We needed a backflow prevention device in the ice machine.

When we called the Health Department to learn more, we discovered that neither Micky's New York Health Certification nor my National ServSafe certification was sufficient. The lady who had inspected us and signed off on Micky's papers was on maternity leave, and there was a new, less peppy inspector in charge. We needed a specific City of Philadelphia recognition. We could have my ServSafe "transferred" to Philadelphia, but this process would take months. We couldn't wait months, we needed to move fast.

So I woke up on a Sunday at 7 a.m. (that's seriously early for me) and drove to the far reaches of west Philadelphia to sit in a classroom for eight hours and take the same class I had completed about a year ago. It wasn't so bad. I brought the New York Times and was the first one to finish the test. A few years out of school, it looked like I hadn't lost my multiple choice mojo.

More Hoops

The owners had their lawyers try to expedite the process. One week later, they faxed the results. But the results weren't enough. Because many people attempt fraud in this crazy process, I had to wait another few weeks, then drive to another office with two forms of ID to wait, wait, and finally pick up the certificate.

Certificate in hand, we were ready to be inspected. Since Micky took over in the kitchen, the place is so clean you can dine on the floor. It's shiny. It's spotless. We installed the screen door and called the plumber about the backflow prevention device. We were good to go. Or so we thought.

Next week: More hurdles, hoops, and another failed test.

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