By Jared S. Hopkins, Tribune reporter
6:23 PM PDT, June 16, 2011
The Cubs don't win much lately, but patrons of the Wrigley rooftops usually leave games satisfied anyway — their stomachs full thanks to the heaping spreads that include everything from grilled chicken sandwiches and Italian beef to draft beer and soft-serve ice cream.
Yet the thousands of fans enjoying the rooftops each season have few ways of knowing if the food is safe to eat. Most of these privately owned establishments, the Tribune found, have escaped the eye of the city's health department, which hasn't performed the required annual inspections to ensure food is prepared, cooked and served safely.
Since 2008, 10 of the 16 rooftops haven't been inspected at all, records show. Five others have failed at least one inspection in recent years and haven't been inspected on the required scheduled. Rarely were any inspections done during the baseball season, when the rooftops are operating.
When the city conducts inspections, it sometimes discovers problems. Of the two rooftops checked this year, one was found to have black slime falling onto ice cubes in an ice machine.
City health officials acknowledged they should be inspecting rooftops at least once a year but say they have fallen behind, in part because some of the rooftops expanded beyond catered food to using their own full-service kitchens. They said the unwritten policy has been to treat rooftops the same way as bars — conduct an initial inspection to grant the license and return only for a complaint.
"These rooftops have evolved," said Jose Munoz, deputy commissioner. "They've changed and we have to change with them."
The physician who oversees inspections, Dr. Cortland Lohff, said the city is increasing the frequency of inspections. In the past, the health department has not typically inspected stadiums or rooftops in season, but Lohff said he doesn't see the logic in that.
"We'd have nothing to inspect if we went out there and they weren't operating," Lohff said of the rooftops.
Munoz told the Tribune on Thursday that two rooftops had been inspected that day, but he provided no further details.
There have been no complaints related to food illness since 2008, but food safety experts said that doesn't mean there's no risk. Tracing the direct source of foodborne illness is almost impossible unless someone is hospitalized or dies.
"Consumers can become sick from food regardless of how awesome the location was where they consumed it," said Sarah Klein, attorney with the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Foodborne illness doesn't discriminate whether it was prepared in a rooftop, on the truck or the backroom of a high-end kitchen."
City code mandates food establishments that routinely serve cooked food be inspected at least once a year. Ald. Tom Tunney, 44th — no stranger to health inspections himself, as the owner of the Ann Sather restaurants — said he didn't know the rooftops weren't regularly being inspected.
"Certainly I'm not happy about it," said Tunney, who has been a supporter of the rooftop industry in his ward. "Public safety is important, especially with food service."
Owners interviewed by the Tribune said they knew of no foodborne illnesses associated with what they serve. Mark Schlenker, owner of Brixen Ivy, at 1044 W. Waveland, said he serves food from caterers and from his own grill.
"I think it's very, very safe," he said.
His rooftop is one found not to have been inspected since 2008. He said the rooftop complies with all the city's demands, including all building, health and fire inspections.
"We've been inspected up the wazoo," Schlenker said. "I think the only thing the people could get sick from is the way the Cubs play."
In the past decade, rooftops have grown in number, size and stature. Years ago, the buildings drew fans equipped with little more than a six-pack and lawn chairs. But over time, rooftop owners began charging admission and serving refreshments. In 1998 the city began regulating them, including obtaining a special license. Today rooftops are allowed to accommodate up to 200 people.
Rooftops have unique licenses but must comply with city food health laws and pass health inspections in order to open. Health inspections, however, aren't required to get a license renewed.
Sheffield Baseball Club, for instance, failed its initial health inspection in May 2007, passed one the next month and hasn't been inspected since. Violations at the building at 3619 N. Sheffield Ave. included not having enough hot water and a lack of soap in the bathrooms.
One of the rooftop's owners, Tom Gramatis, said he trusts the city and couldn't recall any incidents where people have gotten sick — at any rooftop.
"I'm assuming they know what they're doing. These are qualified people," said Gramatis, who owns two other rooftop buildings.
One of the inspections performed this year, at Down the Line Rooftop on Sheffield Avenue in March, was done as the license was transferred to new owners, records show. On that visit, an inspector observed black slime falling onto ice cubes in an ice machine. The facility didn't receive full approval until its third attempt.
Because the rooftop wasn't operating, a citation wasn't issued, according to the inspection report.
Messages left at the rooftop were not returned.
A review of the city's records shows an inconsistent pattern of inspections at the rooftops.
In one case, the rooftop at 1050 W. Waveland — now called Wrigley View Rooftop — was found to be using two coolers that weren't maintaining proper temperatures during two inspections prior to the 2007 season. The business received a passing grade on the third visit.
Another inspection wasn't performed until November 2010, and the facility failed because it didn't have proper pest controls in place, among other things. It then passed a follow-up inspection. Messages left at the rooftop were not returned.
In March 2009, 3639 LLC, on Sheffield, failed an inspection during its renovation, records show. After employing a certified food manager and providing soap in the bathroom, the establishment passed that June. But it hasn't been inspected since then by the health department.
James Lourgos, one of the co-owners, said that his facility undergoes a variety of city inspections.
"We have a facility that's virtually brand new," he said. "And it has been inspected by the city. It is always available for the city to inspect."
Among the rooftops that haven't been inspected since 2008, some were places that serve catered food. City code mandates inspections of catering kitchens but not the locations where the food is served. Rooftops, however, routinely serve food and must be inspected, according to the city.
"That food is routinely being served," Lohff said, "which means we should go in and inspect them on a routine basis."
Greg Christian, a food service consultant who was a caterer for 17 years, said a safety risk arises when food leaves the catering kitchen; there's no one checking once it's in transit and then served at another location.
"Who's making sure the food is safe?" he said. "To me it's a huge hole in the system. There's a lot of rinky-dink caterers out there."
Klein said facilities that use caterers are less likely to serve contaminated food but still pose a risk. She said inspectors can check if holding trays or refrigeration equipment at the rooftops have temperature issues and if employees are wearing gloves or washing their hands.
"If you go to a friend's house and it's absolutely filthy, it still won't be any fun to eat the Chinese food that you bring in," she said.
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