City Paper is not for tourists
Breadline’s humiliation at the hands of the D.C. Department of Health last week generated some predictable reactions at first: gasps and wails from a dining public grossed out by an inspection report that listed “excessive live fruit fly activity,” “excessive grease build up” and “excessive dirt.” Some vowed never to return, even if the esteemed sandwich shop should pass re-inspection and reopen its doors.
“After reading about Breadline’s vermin issues and other potentially serious problems, my stomach revolts at the idea of ever going back,” wrote one commenter on the Washington Post’s Going Out Gurus blog.
Well, the popular downtown sandwich shop did pass its re-inspection—less than a week, in fact, after being citied for 19 violations of the food code. Public reaction seemed to turn around just as quickly. One reader on the Young & Hungryblog accused the media of overhyping the quotidian reality of restaurant closures. Another trotted out the old bromide that residents in other countries live just fine without the Howard Hughes–like bacteriaphobes who run city health departments. They get to eat unpasteurized cheese, too!
Then there was this comment from Mark Furstenberg, when I asked the Breadline founder how his former sandwich shop could have racked up so many violations. “There are two ways to look at it,” he told me. “You could say the inspector was nitpicking or you can say that she walked into a restaurant that looked overwhelmingly bad and then took a very meticulous inspection, finding everything that was wrong.”
Neither of Furstenberg’s hypothetical explanations struck me as particularly flattering toward health inspectors. The former made them sound like nags bent on ruining a good buzz. The latter made them sound like lazy cops who crack down on only the most egregious lawbreakers.
This wavelet of commentary about the Health Department—Who cares about its routine restaurant closings! Who needs it! The inspection process is arbitrary!—got me to wondering how others in the hospitality biz view these regulators. I made a few calls and gave the chef and/or owners the cloak of anonymity if they would speak their minds.
None of the restaurateurs discounted the work of inspectors, and one chef in particular believes city regulators are a convenient scapegoat when trying to train a kitchen crew: Hey, those assholes in the Health Department will shut us down if you don’t clean properly!But another chef/restaurateur wishes the department would develop a more hospitable relationship with D.C.’s restaurants instead of an adversarial one. For example, he could never imagine himself calling up the Health Department and asking for advice about a particular problem. His fear? “I’d get written up for a violation they missed.”
Another owner agreed with Furstenberg’s scenario about inspectors who turn hardcore only when confronted with a particularly nasty kitchen. Typically, the restaurateur says, the inspector will perform a cursory review—checking the ice machine, the walk-in, and the floors—and give you passing marks if all three look fine. If not, however, be prepared for the inspection from hell.
Restaurateurs also find the interpretative nature of the inspector’s job frustrating. One inspector may decide a piece of equipment is up to code while another won’t. And don’t even get these toques started about some of the regulations they have to follow: One chef, for example, mocks the required use of antimicrobial hand sanitizers, which he calls blatantly anti-science since the soaps actually encourage antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
For its part, the Health Department has its own scapegoat—the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA issues national standards on which the District bases its own restaurant regulations, e-mails Dena Iverson, director of communications for the Health Department. Enforcement of those regs falls upon 13 food safety inspectors who must oversee 4,083 retail food establishments throughout the District. They prioritize their work by assigning each place with a “risk level,” from 1 for the lowest to 5 for the highest. Level 5 establishments—those that extensively handle raw ingredients and smoke/cure meats on premises—receive five routine inspections a year.
Breadline is a level 3 operation, which means it receives three routine inspections annually. It’s also one of the 237 food establishments that the Health Department has shut down in the District since May 2008. An inspector can close a restaurant when he believes it “poses an imminent health hazard to the public,” Iverson writes. Such a hazard can fall under one of two categories: If the establishment, right from the start of an inspection, does not have a valid business license or has an infestation of vermin, among other major violations. Or if the establishment has “six or more critical violations that cannot be corrected on site,” Iverson adds. Breadline qualified for closure under both categories.
The latter category for closure “is rare,” Iverson notes. “Only facilities that are extremely poorly managed get closed this way.”
Despite its great power, the department is somewhat handicapped in trying to justify its work. Unlike, say, a paramedic who can say she saved 30 lives last year, the health department can only look at negatives, like food-borne illnesses. Last year, the District had 277 reported instances of food-borne illnesses, which doesn’t tell you much since the number includes victimes who got sick at home as well as at restaurants. The department’s long-term effectiveness, however, can be felt in ways the public cannot see: in that food establishments learn to “self-correct critical violations that can cause illness,” Iverson notes.
In Breadline’s case, its about-face was obviously encouraged at the tip of an inspector’s pencil. Regardless, the sandwich shop’s quick turnaround allowed it, despite many violations, to open for business on Monday, just a week after word leaked about its closing. I stopped by the shop on the day it reopened and found a patio full of patrons. Inside, however, the tables were far less populated. I asked the cashier how Breadline was faring on its first day back in business. She said it was “better than expected.”
But, I asked, is it short of the usual numbers? She smiled and nodded.
bgr gets BGgR
While Mark Bucher isn’t quite ready to start duking it out with Five Guys, he is set to launch the next hamburger chain in the area.
Bucher, founder and co-owner of BGR: The Burger Joint, told Y&H that he has agreed in principle to open his third shop on Dupont Circle, where the burger man will peddle the same beef-heavy menu that earned the Bethesda BGR location a spot on Y&H’s Dining Guide (6/19).
Last month, Don Rockwell reported that Bucher was going to open a second BGR in Old Town, in the former Timberman’s Pharmacy spot at 106 N. Washington. The 55-seat Alexandria store is expected to open in early August, Bucher says. The smaller, 40-seat Dupont location, which will likely adopt an edgier tone than the original Bethesda store, should open its doors in the fall, possibly as early as September, he adds.
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