Served: Health Department Hell (Part 2)


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.jpgWith my health certification in hand and our kitchen sparkly clean, we called the health department and told them we were prepared for our inspection. "Come inspect us!"

Micky and I were ready at the restaurant a few minutes before 10 AM, the time of our appointment. She came in one hour later. By then we were hungry and enjoying a picnic of pastries spread out on the bar.

Let the Inspection Begin

The inspector was equipped with clipboards, checklists, and papers galore. No time for niceties, she went straight to work.

She quizzed me on foodborne illnesses and how to wash dishes.

Question: "What do you do when one of your employees exhibits the symptoms of foodborne illness?"

Answer: "Call the health department and report the incident immediately. Don't allow the employee to return until they have a note from their doctor."

Check. Thermometer in the fridge, check. Dishwasher works, check. Gloves in the kitchen check. Soap in the bathroom, check.

But we didn't pass! Here's why:

1. Unfinished wood on some of the shelves. On these shelves we had dry goods in boxes and bags like lentils and Maldon salt. This is a health violation—the wood needs to be lacquered and shiny.

2. Our coffee and espresso machines were not official industrial models, they were home models.

3.The door on the men's bathroom was not self-closing. Also, our garbage bin in the women's restroom lacked a cover (for sanitary napkins).

4. I messed up. I know perfectly well how to wash dishes in a three compartment sink: wash with soapy water, rinse, sanitize. I've done it for years. But under pressure, I mangled my words. I think I said: wash, sanitize, rinse, or something. I caught myself and corrected the order, but it was too late. As the certified health manager, I was not permitted a slip up. Hence, violation number four.

5. The backflow prevention device had never been installed in our ice machine. This is actually a big deal! A backflow preventer protects a potable water source from possible contamination from dirty water.

Debbie, the owner, had called her plumber after the health inspection with our previous chef and requested he put in this nifty, crucial mechanism. The plumber promised Debbie the job was done, when in fact it was not. After the second health inspection, we called a different plumber.

What It Means

What happens when you fail your Philadelphia health inspection? The first time, nothing much. They schedule a second inspection. If you fail inspection number two, however, they issue you a hefty fine. The third time around, the health department can shut you down. And that's what they do.

So we got to work. The inspector said she would pop in during service, which is a lot of headache. In every great restaurant I have encountered, the cooks work with their clean bare hands. Clean hands are better than gloves. Trust me, you want the chef to touch your food. Not to feel it up, just to make it beautiful on the plate. To toss the salad gently and pile it high you need graceful fingers, not tongs.

So we had gloves ready. If the health inspector showed up, every employee knew the first order of business was to stall her and notify the kitchen.

This time, we checked the work of our plumber. Kolin, our waiter slash fixing things extraordinaire, put new hinges on the men's restroom door. After several coats, the lacquering of the shelves prove ineffective, so we lined them with plastic sheets.

When the inspector returned, she asked me the same questions. This time, I got them right. We had covered our bases and then some. We cleaned until we could clean no more. And pass we did!

This time, the only violation was a broom stored on the floor. We don't actually store our brooms on the floor. We were just doing some pre-inspection, last minute sweeping.