Policing Your Plates

Kitchen cops scour Square for filth; b.good is best

John Fallon of the Cambridge Inspectional Services has been staring down rodents and rummaging through rubbish for a long time—but he still recalls one of the most egregious restaurant violations in his two-decade-long career.

The assistant commissioner, who was once a sanitary inspector, says he observed an extreme case of cross-contamination at one Italian restaurant many years ago.

“There was a vat—had to be 30 gallons—of tomato sauce, and a couple of shelves above it was raw chicken,” he says, gesticulating, engrossed in the memory. “The chicken was defrosting alright, but the lip was so small that it was dripping right down into the tomato sauce.”

He chuckles about it now, but at the time, Fallon somberly insisted that the restaurant dispose of the sauce immediately.

Critical violations such as these are not the norm in Harvard Square, where five to seven violations per visit is commonplace.

A minimum of twice a year, sanitation inspectors visit the 588 food establishments in Cambridge, including restaurants, convenience, and grocery stores—and even Harvard dining halls—to check for a variety of conditions, from whether food is properly handled to whether rodents are kept at bay.

The Thai restaurant 9 Tastes on JFK Street accrued an abnormal 12 violations at their last inspection in February, while fast-food joint b.good on Dunster Street outperformed other popular Square establishments, with zero violations in March.

Although food-handling violations attract the most attention, there is more to sanitation than just clean dishes. The inspection process is intricate and thorough, involving hands-and-knees investigation and sometimes lasting for hours.

‘CRITICAL VIOLATIONS’

On a warm but blustery Friday, a baseball-cap-clad inspector, Lauren Sullivan, with flashlight in hand, began her inspection of Redline restaurant on JFK Street. Although Fallon does not usually tag along, the gray-haired assistant commissioner ventured out of the office on this particular afternoon.

Sullivan inspects the “rubbish area,” where the dumpsters and grease-rendering barrel are located. Excess food stuck on the inside of the dumpsters can easily attract rodents and insects that can enter the restaurant through the back door, she says.

Several establishments in the Square, including Au Bon Pain, Spice, and Tommy’s House of Pizza, have been cited for rodent-friendly conditions.

Although online public records lack detail, rodent violations do not necessarily imply the presence of rodents. Sanitary inspector Buddy Packer explains the violation could refer to a broken door that a rodent could use to gain entrance—one of Currier House’s recent critical violations.

“Criticals mean we want it done by the next day or before we leave the place,” says Sullivan. “If there are a whole lot of [non-critical] violations, we can [still] make [the situation] critical.”

A restaurant’s food-holding temperature is checked—after it is cooked but before it is served—in order to prevent food-born illnesses, another violation that rises to the “critical” level. The temperature of hot foods must surpass 140 degrees.

Felipe’s Taqueria, Grafton Street, and Pinocchio’s Pizza were all cited for inadequate hot- and cold-holding temperatures during their last inspections, but all have been reinspected and have fixed the violation.

According to Fallon, one of the most common customer complaints is alleged sickness following a meal at an establishment. Inspectors that same day go to the accused restaurant and check everything—from “how they make a product all the way to where they serve it,” Fallon says.

A complaint was lodged against Felipe’s in January after a customer said he vomited and was struck with diarrhea after allegedly eating a pork taco at the Square hot spot. Inspectors found Felipe’s hot-holding temperatures inadequate, and the restaurant corrected them the next day.

While the Hong Kong on Mass. Ave. was once near the bottom of the barrel in terms of cleanliness, records show the restaurant received only four violations on its last inspection. It had been cited with 11 violations in August 2004.

“They’ve really turned it around,” says Fallon, crediting the improvements to the monetary success of their upstairs club.

HOT-COLD HYGIENICS

Upon returning to the Redline kitchen, Sullivan checks to see if there is a designated hand-washing sink present with adequate soap and paper towels.

Fallon and Sullivan explain that sometimes things pile on the sinks, which discourages workers from coming over to wash their hands.

But employee hygiene does not just stop at hair-tying and hand-washing. Any employee working with food is not supposed to wear jewelry, except a plain wedding band.

“Food can get stuck underneath rings or in bracelets, and it can get in the next dish,” says Sullivan, who added that jewelry can also get caught in machinery, resulting in serious injury.

Square restaurants 9 Tastes, Spice, and Daedalus were cited for poor hygienic practices.

And although hot dishes are oft-associated with cleanliness, Sullivan explains that bleach works best with cooler dishwashers, while it is the quaternary solution that is used with hot-temperature dishwashers.

For hot-temperature dishwashers, the temperature should be between 162 and 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Sullivan says that a two-degree marginal error exists because the temperature they are looking for is the temperature on the plate, and as soon as the dishwasher is opened, the temperature goes down considerably.

Sullivan cited Redline for the presence of lime- and detergent-buildup on the dishwasher fixtures, advising one of the restaurant’s “persons-in-charge,” Sean Kennedy, to handle it immediately.

‘ANYONE CAN HAVE A BAD DAY’

One inspection is not always representative of a restaurant’s daily habits, Sullivan says.

Anyone can have a bad day, and “it all depends on what [the inspectors] see when they get there that day,” she adds.

Everything from proper ventilation in the bathrooms, to wiring of equipment, to the scoops used in flour and sugar were checked at Redline, whose sugar scoop did not have a handle.

If any violations are found within a given restaurant, re-inspection occurs anywhere from three days to a week later, Sullivan says. An inspector averages four to five routine inspections each day.

The Square fares no better or worse than other areas, according to Sullivan. “It all depends on what’s going on in the area,” she says, adding that construction can cause excess dust near a restaurant, and that passers-by have been known to throw personal garbage in some restaurants’ dumpsters.

Inspectional services will search through trash bins for clues to the owner of the stray garbage, Sullivan says with a chuckle. ”With gloves,” she adds emphatically.

Square restaurants working to boost their sanitary credentials have done so across the board. Violations peaking in the double digits in years past have fallen to average levels, and Square fast-food spots facing less-than-stellar reputations boast fewer violations than their full-service restaurant counterparts.

—Staff writer Rebecca L. Ledford can be reached at rledford@fas.harvard.edu.



NUTRITION FACTS

Health Code violations in most recent inspections:



9 Tastes: 12

Spice: 9

UNO’s: 9

Grafton Street: 6

Felipe’s: 6

Hong Kong: 4

Tommy’s House of Pizza: 3

Pinocchio’s: 3

Tommy Doyle’s: 3

Daedalus: 3

John Harvard’s: 3.

Au Bon Pain: 2

b-good: 0