Taking a look at restaurant violations

Over 650 ‘critical’ infractions found at Lawrence eateries so far in 2012

Findings of investigation

Restaurants with the most critical violations since 2010

• El Mezcal, 1520 Wakarusa Drive: 76

• El Mezcal, 1819 W. 23rd St.: 65

• Jade Garden, 1410 Kasold Drive: 60

• Zen Zero, 811 Mass.: 53

• Haskell Diner, 1910 Haskell Ave.: 44

• Burger Stand, 803 Mass.: 36

• Esquina, 801 Mass.: 33

• King Buffet, 1601 W. 23rd St.: 32

• Yokohama, 1730 W. 23rd St.: 29

• Oriental Bistro, 1511 W. 23rd St.: 28

• Ingredient, 947 Mass.: 26

• Paisano’s, 2112 W. 25th St.: 25

• Mad Greek, 907 Mass.: 20

Other findings

• 92 Lawrence restaurants recorded no critical violations during their 2012 inspection, and 106 restaurants recorded between one and three violations.

• 42 restaurants had not received any critical violations since 2010.

• 11 Lawrence restaurants recorded 10 or more violations in 2012.

• 44 restaurants received a non-compliance notice from inspectors in 2012.

How we conducted our investigation

Using the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s online restaurant inspection website, we examined all 266 Lawrence restaurants inspected between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year. For restaurants that had received a “non-compliance notice” for a high number of violations, we checked inspection reports back to the beginning of 2010. All the information has been added to a searchable database, available at LJWorld.com, which includes links to all the inspection reports. The database will be updated monthly. To search a restaurant’s inspection reports, visit http://1.usa.gov/MzWfIN.

Some are sparkling clean, some are a little grimy, and a few others occasionally are plagued by pesky roaches or rodents.

But when you sit down at your favorite Lawrence dining spot, you probably have no idea what may be lurking in the kitchen.

That’s what the Kansas Department of Agriculture’s restaurant inspectors are interested in, giving a surprise visit to about a dozen Lawrence restaurants each week.

They find everything from clean kitchens to a rare mice infestation, according to the reports for 266 Lawrence restaurants inspected in the first six months of 2012.

Kansas Department of Agriculture Inspection Supervisor Nicole Hamm sat down with the Journal-World to explain the inspection process and help put the numbers in perspective.

The inspection

At least once a year, inspectors visit every restaurant in Lawrence, which also includes bars, fraternity and sorority houses, school kitchens, and even snack shops at Kansas University. Inspectors pop in unannounced and run through an extensive checklist and observe restaurant staff for up to two hours, quizzing managers on safety measures. They’re looking for anything from cooks not wearing gloves, to food stored improperly, to cockroaches scurrying about.

The goal isn’t to catch restaurants red-handed, but to promote food safety, Hamm said.

Many issues found at restaurants come down to simple training and education.

“It’s a partnership,” said Hamm, stressing that the inspectors work with restaurants on food safety guidelines.

Critical violations

During inspections, inspectors look for what’s known as critical violations, which are violations that could lead to a foodborne illness: everything from food being kept at improper temperatures to improper storage of chemicals.

Inspectors use the 2005 Kansas Food Code, a 200-page manual modeled after federal law.

In the first half of 2012, inspectors visited 266 restaurants in Lawrence, finding 651 critical violations.

Most of those violations can be fixed on site, Hamm said, and don’t result in additional action.

But if a visit results in five or more critical violations, inspectors issue a “non-compliance notice,” which means they’ll be back in less than two weeks for another inspection.

In the first six months of 2012, inspectors issued 44 non-compliance notices to Lawrence restaurants.

Restaurants have a few more chances to clean up before any fines are levied, and it takes multiple non-compliance notices before the state seeks a license revocation.

“We really, really try not to do that,” Hamm said.

While several Lawrence restaurants racked up dozens of violations during inspections in 2012, none of the cases reached revocation status.

Immediate closures

Some inspections, however, find critical violations that could cause imminent harm, forcing an immediate closure of a restaurant. But restaurants are not required to inform the public of such closures, though the information is posted online.

In 2012, only two Lawrence restaurants, Esquina and La Familia, were closed following inspections.

Here’s a recap of those closures:

• La Familia, 733 N.H.: On March 29, inspectors found 11 critical violations, the most serious of which was the discovery of “30-40 mouse droppings located on the floor under the dish machine. 20-30 fresh mouse droppings located on the floor under the can rack. 10-20 fresh mouse droppings located under the store.”

A pest control bill supplied by La Familia showed that a pest control service had visited the restaurant last in November. The restaurant agreed to a one-day voluntary closure to address the violations. The next day, the restaurant reopened and was again inspected, but this time no violations were recorded. The restaurant agreed to have pest control come once a week for the next month. The Journal-World was unable to contact the owner for comment.

• Esquina, 801 Mass.: On April 19, inspectors found more than a dozen live roaches in various areas of the restaurant. The restaurant agreed to a voluntary closure. Later that day, inspectors returned after a pest control company had treated the restaurant. No roaches or violations were reported during the second visit, and the restaurant agreed to regular pest control treatments. On May 21, inspectors returned and again found live roaches on grease traps, as well as 23 dead roaches along the wall. The restaurant was not closed but issued a non-compliance notice. Since 2010, Esquina had racked up 33 critical violations during inspections, including three non-compliance notices in 2011.

Robert Krause, Esquina’s owner, said that they were “dumbfounded” by the discovery of roaches.

“We’ve never, ever seen a roach in our restaurant,” Krause said, explaining that the roaches were found in the basement. Krause also pointed out that they were able to fix the issue in less than an hour. Krause chalked up the roach problem to the old buildings downtown, which makes pest control more of a challenge.

“We spend a ton of money on pest control,” Krause said.

Most violations

For the 44 Lawrence restaurants that received a non-compliance notice in 2012, the Journal-World examined reports for those restaurants dating back to 2010. A total of 13 restaurants had been cited for 20 or more violations during that time. Here’s how the four restaurants with the most violations during that time responded to our findings:

• El Mezcal, 1520 Wakarusa Drive: 76

• El Mezcal, 1819 W. 23rd St.: 65

The Journal-World was unable to reach a manager or owner from El Mezcal to comment on their violations.

• Jade Garden, 1410 Kasold Drive: 60

Restaurant owner Lisa Koay said the inspection process is necessary to keep restaurants safe, but oftentimes the violations are minor.

“A lot of small things,” Koay said, such as employees drinking soda in the kitchen. Koay said she’s also been frustrated at times when different inspectors come by and would like to see more consistency so the restaurants and inspector can build a rapport. Even though the restaurant has received a high number of violations, Koay pointed out that her restaurant hasn’t been fined or closed down.

• Zen Zero, 811 Mass.: 53

Subarna Bhattachan, co-owner of Zen Zero, said his restaurant “takes the health regulations seriously,” and sometimes violations are a result of new employees not following regulations, despite training.

“We go over and over them,” Bhattachan said. And what time of year inspectors visit restaurants can also play a role in the number of violations, he said. For instance, on extremely warm days it can be more of a challenge to keep refrigeration at proper temperatures. Bhattachan said his restaurant has taken measures, such as buying new equipment and performing extra cleaning on holidays, to clear up any previous problems during inspections.

Zen Zero was also ordered to close its doors for 10 days in January 2011 stemming from violations but settled with the Department of Agriculture to close for five days, from Jan. 6 to Jan. 11.

“We’ve had some issues in the past, but we’ve worked to rectify them,” he said.

‘Just a snapshot’

Hamm cautioned that what an inspector finds on one particular day may not necessarily be indicative of the cleanliness of a restaurant.

“They’re just a snapshot in time,” Hamm said. “We really want to make sure they know what to do the other 364 days a year.”

Hamm advised diners to keep their eyes open when visiting restaurants. Anyone can make anonymous complaints to the state online at http://1.usa.gov/Mtlsts.