It’s the one or two days a year that all restaurant owners dread.
It’s the time that county inspect-ors--flashlights, temperature gauges and pens in hand--drop in for a surprise visit.
With the Restaurant Assn. of California reporting that Los Angeles residents spend between 40% and 50% of their food dollars on prepared meals, inspectors have never been busier protecting our stomachs, and even our lives, from food-borne illnesses.
Even Studio City’s Jerry’s Famous Deli, one of the Valley’s most popular eateries, was closed overnight Wednes-day after inspectors found unclean uten-sils and food not properly refrigerated.
A total of 161 inspectors are employed by the Los Angeles County Health Department’s Environmental Health Services Division to peek into cupboards and stoves and crawl through dark storage areas looking for unhealthful conditions.
Inspectors close a few Los Angeles restaurants every day. The Times publishes a list of those closures once a month. Most closures last from 1-3 days, says Michael Spear, an Environmental Health Services manager. But owners who fail to correct violations can have their licenses suspended or revoked.
“The majority accept the fact that we are there to do a job for the public, but there are always a few who are resentful,” Spear said.
“In general, the program does what it is intended to do: provide safe eating environments for the public,” Spear said. “I eat out, so it must be working.”
Frequent Violations Uncovered by Inspectors
Cracks or holes in walls or ceilings
Unsafe temperatures and uncovered food
Cooking temperatures too low
Improper storage of personal belongings
Improper storage of cleaning supplies
Hazardous materials exposed
Utensils not properly stored
Lack of hot or cold water
No hairnet or hat
Garbage not properly disposed of
Hazardous materials exposed
Sitting on counters
Failure to wash hands
Cracks in tile or cement
* The Environmental Health Services Division of the Los Angeles County Health Department has employed an average of 161 inspectors over the past two fiscal years. (7/95-6/97) Seventy-nine inspectors are dedicated full-time to inspecting restaurants.
* Inspectors completed a total of 82,157 inspections during the two-year period. The depart-ment conducts an average of 3,423 inspections per month.
* During the same two-year period, inspectors closed down a total of 1,759 establish-ments, 2.1% of the total inspected. The Health Department closes an average of 73 restaurants per month.
* Only 1%-2% of restaurants inspected receive no citations at all.
* Inspectors judge restaurants on a 100-point rating system with deductions for each violation found. A score of 60 points or less is considered a failing grade.
* The five most serious categories of violations are unsafe food temperatures, failure to properly sanitize equipment, presence of a transmittable disease, presence of hazardous materials and plumbing failure.
Question & Answer an offender
Question & Answer with Patrick, whose small (unnamed) Los Angeles restaurant was closed by county inspectors from Sept. 29-30 for sewage-system failure, vermin infestation and unsanitary equipment.
Q. Were you aware of the problems that led to your closure?
A. Mostly the inspector was concerned about a small water leak. I had no idea of the seriousness of the problem... I’m like a lot of people in this business: We are supposed to be experts, but we are really not. Most people [restaurant owners] don’t know about all of the regulations.
Q. How did you fix the problems?
A. I had to call a plumber to fix the leak and do some cleaning up. We did it right away.
Q. Was the closure justified?
A. The inspector told me it was nothing major. I don’t think there was cause for the closure... I realize the importance of the system, but if it’s not that serious, I think they should give you a chance to correct the problem before they shut you down. Not like a month, but maybe a couple of days.
Q. How did the closure affect your business?
A. It was a very embarrassing moment for me. It has hurt my business a lot. I have customers who come every day, and when they see a sign on my door saying I’m closed by the Health Depart-ment, well, it’s not good. I wouldn’t go back to such a place myself.
Q.How were you treated by the inspectors?
A. Well, they closed my restaurant. Overall, though, she [the inspector] was friendly and professional.
Q. Did being shut down cause you to change the way you do things?
A. Yes. I realize how stupid I was. Now I want to be on the safe side. Now every day I’m checking for these things. I want to find out what extra steps I can take to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Sources: L.A. County Health Dept., Environmental Health Services Division. Researched by DARRELL SATZMAN/Los Angeles Times