Ever wonder if the cook at your favorite local restaurant washes both hands vigorously after handling raw meat? Or perhaps you’ve found a piece of someone else’s hair in your soup. Heck, maybe you’re just curious about what goes on behind the door of a restaurant kitchen.
Public documents maintained by restaurant inspectors can unravel some of the mystery.
The Great Plains Examiner spent two weeks reviewing thousands of pages of restaurant inspection reports, written complaints from the public, the state food code and recommendations from food-safety specialists who work in the Bismarck Environmental Health Division. We reviewed records for each of the 126 bars and restaurants in Bismarck covering the past four years and compiled a list of violations for each establishment.
Most of the violations were mundane slip-ups that would be unlikely to compromise the integrity of a customer’s food. A crack in the kitchen tile. Dirty floors. A dumpster left open. Holes in the wall or ceiling. Flies in the dining area.
Other violations were far more serious. Expired food in the kitchen. Raw meat stored with ready-to-eat food. Buffet items at temperatures that attract bacteria. Dirty mixers, ovens, can openers and food-preparation tables. Cooks who failed to wash their hands properly. Managers who couldn’t answer basic food-safety questions.
A few violations were downright shocking. Black mold was found on the kitchen equipment at Grizzly’s Grill and Saloon. Uneaten bread was being collected from tables and reused by Lady J’s Catering. Employees were spraying bread with water in a bottle labeled “oven cleaner” at the Subway on North 13th St. A drive-through customer at the south-side Arby’s found a bloody napkin in his bag of food. And, two months ago, a dead rattlesnake was discovered in the food-storage area at Famous Dave’s Restaurant.
The three inspectors who work in the city’s Environmental Health Division are always on the lookout for ways to improve the safety practices at restaurants, bars and any other place that serves food or drink to the public. They conduct routine, twice-yearly inspections at all restaurants and bars, as well as follow-up inspections at establishments that rack up a high number of critical violations.
The inspectors use a set of food-safety requirements defined by the North Dakota Department of Health to determine whether violations are “critical” or “non-critical” and then work with restaurant owners or managers to correct the infractions. Critical violations, which have the highest potential to contaminate food, must be corrected on the spot. If an immediate health threat is detected, the city can forcibly close a restaurant until the threat has been eliminated. If critical threats continue for a sustained period of time without remedy, the city has the option of forcing the restaurant to close.
Anton Sattler, the administrator of Bismarck’s Environmental Health Division, said inspectors conduct free food-safety training to any restaurant that requests it. He said his top priority is to teach restaurant employees to create a safe environment for food – from the package to the table.
“We’re regulators, but that’s kind of the last straw,” he said. “We really should be educators first. That’s the ticket to environmental health. But if they ultimately don’t comply, then we have to pull the trigger.”
The city hasn’t forced the permanent closure of any restaurant since Sattler took over as head of the division last year. He said most restaurant owners and managers are very receptive to the recommendations from inspectors and work hard to correct violations.
“There are times when you think you made headway with management on these items, and then you come back and it’s clear that they learned it but didn’t use it – in one ear and out the other,” he said. “But that’s very uncommon. Most of the time, they’re very receptive. They want to know.”
The state’s food-safety rules are always changing, and it can take time for restaurant employees to adjust to new requirements, Sattler said. One recent adjustment was made to the designation of violations – instead of calling certain violations “non-critical,” inspectors across the state are now using the term “core violation.”
“The whole purpose of getting rid of that “non-critical” designation was a belief that too many people were looking at it and thinking they didn’t have to deal with it, that it wasn’t important,” Sattler said.
The state’s food safety requirements are detailed in a 75-page document that outlines hundreds of standards and rules that restaurants must follow. Slipping up on any one of them can lead to a violation.
In fact, only one full-service restaurant in Bismarck had a perfect record during the past four years. Pirogue Grill was inspected eight times since the beginning of 2009 and tallied zero violations. A few others avoided critical violations but had non-critical or core violations during that time.
Five restaurants – Hong Kong Restaurant, New Fortune Cookie Restaurant, Golden Corral, Chinatown Buffet and Grizzly’s Grill and Saloon – received 25 or more critical violations since the beginning of 2009.
Even though some restaurants have received a high number of critical violations, Sattler said he can say with confidence that Bismarck’s food establishments are safe places to eat.
“Some places do a better job with general management practices, but they all meet the minimum requirements to operate,” he said. “Any restaurant that’s open right now, I would eat at myself. If I didn’t feel that way, they shouldn’t be operating.”
In addition to restaurants and bars, the Environmental Health Division inspects hotels, schools, public pools, assisted-living centers, hospitals, tanning facilities and pest-control companies. More than 400 establishments in Bismarck receive an annual inspection.
Bismarck’s Environmental Health Division posts a list of critical violations on the city’s website at www.bismarck.org/index.aspx?NID=1078.
Restaurants and bars in Mandan are inspected by Custer Health, which provides oversight for the counties of Morton, Sioux, Oliver and Mercer.
-Matt Bunk is publisher of the Great Plains Examiner.