Restaurant inspections get tougher

It was just a letter about the state changing its restaurant inspection form.

But when he received it in May, Tony Grippo took it seriously enough to post the new form and encourage employees at BrickTop's, the SouthPark restaurant he manages, to practice the standards it outlined.

Such as: Wash hands thoroughly before handling food. Cook food for the proper time and at the right temperature. And make sure surfaces that touch food are sanitized.

They're not new standards. But they're freshly emphasized on a new form local health departments told N.C. restaurateurs about in May and began using this week.

The new form outlines 18 “critical violations,” or those that have a high chance of making diners ill – such as failure to wash hands or heat and cool food properly.

The old form listed only 11 critical violations. It also assigned similar weight to critical violations and breaches of “good retail practices,” preventive measures dealing largely with proper storage and refrigeration, clean floors and walls and the presence of insects or rodents. The new form docks more points for critical violations than for the 30 retail practices.

The point is to stress compliance on “things that can make people sick,” said Lynn Lathan, a Mecklenburg County health supervisor who helped draft the new form. “We need to be more concerned about issues concerning food handling than what condition the floor tiles are in.”

Tougher penalties

An example, which the Mecklenburg County Health Department cited in its letter to restaurant owners: On the old form, if a restaurant wasn't cooking food to its proper final temperature, not properly cooling food and not keeping display food at the right temperature, it would lose a maximum of 5 points on its inspection form.

The new form sets the maximum penalty at 12 points – a heftier penalty in a system that immediately shuts down a restaurant scoring below 70 in an inspection.

The county Health Department enforces standards for about 3,900 restaurants, cafeterias and food stands. As of Thursday, it had inspected 10 restaurants using the new form. One was Ho Ho Cherry House, a Chinese restaurant in Elizabeth, which scored 90 after its inspection Wednesday.

It was a disappointment to owner Jason Chen, whose restaurant had scored 94.5 after its last inspection under the old form April 25. But the inspector Wednesday noted that the kitchen sink lacked paper towels, and a cook failed to wash his hands after smoking. The inspection, Chen said Thursday, “was more stringent than ever before.”

‘They overlook things'

BrickTop's hasn't been inspected yet under the new form. It scored a 95 out of 100 on its last inspection April 30. But Grippo said the new form has helped reinforce his insistence on following procedures.

“Sometimes, with employees – not to say we're not dealing with professionals, but they overlook things sometimes,” Grippo said. “But if it's so important the Health Department is stressing it on a form … it's not just Tony the manager saying it's something you have to do.”

He said he's managed restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the standards he's held to in Charlotte equal or surpass the standards in those cities. The new emphasis on critical violations helps remind employees they can contaminate food in ways they might not think about, Grippo said.

The new form, for example, stresses proper cooling and re-heating of stored food, something the old form doesn't cover as strenuously.

“It reminds us as operators that food can be fresh and cooked right,” he said. “But it doesn't mean people are following the right practices once food is cooked.”