I’ve been in the food service industry all of my life. As a child, I remember spending the warm summer days sitting on the front porch of my Grandma’s country store – a convenience store of yesteryear – in Harrisonville, PA.
When I was a few years older, my parents owned a small grocery store in a nearby town. I can recall wiping the shelving as I helped restock product. As a teenager, I began my first “real job” as fry girl in a fast food restaurant, which eventually led to me becoming an operating partner.
These jobs – along with some common sense and ongoing education – taught me the ins and outs of the industry. While I was in my own environment, running my own restaurant, I thought the rest of the world operated as I did, meaning – they followed the rules. Upon moving on to the next phase of my career I found out that, sadly, that’s not true….
I eventually became a health inspector, which meant I had access to hundreds of restaurant kitchens. My assumption that everyone operated as I did came to an abrupt end one day as I entered a restaurant kitchen just after they had finished slaughtering a goat – yes a goat. In a restaurant kitchen.
At first, I wasn’t certain what type of creature it was because when I opened the freezer door, all I saw were several small hooved legs strewn about the freezer floor. I immediately shut the door and opened it again, as if I was seeing a mirage. Out of the corner of my eye, I observed a box lined with a trash bag, with another hoof sticking out of the bag. So very carefully I opened the bag and found the remains of several goats. And that was a horrific sight that I couldn’t un-see.
Another time, I was inspecting one of my favorite full-service restaurants. With its marble floors, white linens, and great food, I’d been a longtime fan of this establishment. I was actually looking forward to visiting their kitchen because I loved the place and truly enjoyed their food.
But when I visited, I witnessed a disgusting scene. There were too many violations to list. There were numerous temperature violations and mystery meat in five-gallon chemical buckets (!!!) in the walk-in cooler. The cooks were picking crab meat off the leftovers from the guests’ plates to make crab imperial and cream of crab soup – two of my favorite dishes – to serve to other diners! The chilled forks were being cooled directly on three inches of contaminated ice build-up in a dilapidated old freezer.
As I stood, engaged in a heated discussion with the owner about these infractions, a cockroach wandered across the stainless-steel countertop between us. The owner simply smashed it with his hand and knocked it onto the floor. Oddly enough, the owner of this establishment didn’t think that his facility had serious safety violation issues. Not only did I write up these many violations, I haven’t eaten there since. The violations were appalling, and the foodborne illness risks at the facility were monumental.
While inspecting a different full-service restaurant, I was standing in the kitchen when I observed a chef take off a pair of single-use gloves only to expose another pair underneath – a definite food safety violation! When I questioned him, he explained that the sink was “too far away to keep running over there to wash my hands”. I was stunned. As it turned out, he was wearing five pairs of single use gloves simultaneously. On another visit to this establishment, I witnessed another chef washing his hands while wearing single-use gloves, rather than removing them, washing his hands and putting on a clean pair. The potential cross-contamination and cross-contact issues that both of these situations created were numerous. I am certain this “method” wasn’t taught in culinary school. Their instructors would be mortified.
On several occasions, I was called in to conduct inspections because people had seen cockroaches in restaurants. Cockroaches like warm, moist, dark environments. The first place I look is in a piece of refrigeration equipment. I’ll remove a panel and look at the fins that cover the coils….BAM! As soon as light hits the filthy little insects, they scatter and I know there’s an infestation. Not my favorite part of the day. I once was involved in a consulting project for a company that had been closed by the health department due to a cockroach infestation. We had to do some heavy fumigating. The infestation was so bad that as the cockroaches started to die, they were coming out of the drop ceiling and landing on our heads. Thank heavens for hoodies! I’d put that experience in the top five worst days I’ve had on the job (along with the day I saw the slaughtered goat!).
Insurance companies will sometimes hire us to conduct food safety inspections on their restaurant clients. During one of these inspections, I found several pallets of refrigerated product sitting right outside of a walk-in cooler – not 3 feet away from the cooler door. The product was well over the recommended temperature (41⁰F) for cold food.
It was the end of summer, incredibly hot and all of the warehouse doors were open, which let in more heat and humidity. When I questioned the supervisor on duty about the food that was being spoiled in the hot warehouse, he explained to me that it was lunchtime and all of the workers had left, but they would put the food away as soon as they returned from their break. It would have taken seconds to pull this pallet of food in the cooler with a forklift! I couldn’t understand why they’d drop the food so close to the cooler, without taking the (very minimal) extra effort to put it inside.
During another inspection, I found a tuna sandwich in a retail display case that was 80⁰F. When I explained to a person on duty that this was not acceptable – the tuna would quickly spoil at that temperature – and what the potential ramifications could be, the response I received was, “Well it’s only one sandwich!” I told her that one sandwich could potentially make someone sick or kill them if they ate it. So, it’s OK if you only kill one person today?
I could continue with numerous other examples, but the point I want to make is this: if you are in any way responsible for someone else’s food, you are responsible for their life and that should be taken seriously. One life (and one rotten tuna sandwich) or thousands of lives (as they eat food from pallets that have been sitting out for hours in a steaming hot warehouse) is irrelevant…ask anyone who’s lost a loved one due to a foodborne illness. And, it doesn’t matter if you’re working in a convenience store or a fine dining restaurant – you have human lives in your hands. Be responsible and follow proper food safety protocol.