Eateries quick to act on safety issues
A lingering problem with refrigerators at Ichiban Hibachi Steakhouse in Robinson prompted Allegheny County Health Department officials to shut the restaurant and dispose of lettuce, raw beef, lobster tails, fish fillets, tofu, bean sprouts and other foods not stored at the proper temperature.
Less than 24 hours later, the restaurant hummed with the chatter of customers enjoying lunch. A hostess said health inspectors returned early in the morning and cleared the restaurant to open.
Most restaurants that the Health Department closes because of food safety violations stay shuttered for less than a week, many for only a day or two, according to department records the Tribune-Review obtained.
Even a brief closure can cost a restaurant thousands of dollars in lost business and food, and tarnish its reputation.
“I see that as a pretty harsh punishment,” said John Graf, owner of The Priory in the North Side and president of the Western Chapter of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association. “Number one, you lose a lot of money. And number two, it's a black mark. So I see it as a deterrent.”
Closures are not meant to punish restaurants but rather to protect the public from imminent health threats, said Donna Scharding, the county's food safety program manager.
“It really depends on them, on when they can get their act together,” Scharding said, noting that owners sometimes work through the night to correct violations before morning. “These are conditions that pose a risk to the public. Until they can be fixed, we cannot allow them to operate.”
Of the 32 restaurants and kitchens ordered to close since 2010, 18 reopened within a week. Two of those reopened the same day; and five, by the next day. Five restaurants stayed closed for a week or more.
Nine were closed and did not reopen or reopened under a different name, records show.
Health inspectors close restaurants for hazards such as broken coolers or sanitation equipment, sewage spills, and rat and fly infestations. Restaurants with unsafe practices including improper food temperatures and incorrect labels on food or chemicals receive a consumer alert. The department lists both actions on its website.
Of 43 consumer alerts issued since 2010, the department removed 12 within one to two days. Twenty-two stayed active for a week or more.
Owners aren't charged a fee for re-inspections required to reopen or to remove the alert. Restaurants with less severe violations during annual inspections are re-inspected at no cost.
That could change. The department proposed charging restaurants for re-inspections. Restaurants would receive one free re-inspection and pay $150 for the second and $300 for additional visits, said Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health.
Public comment on the fees ended June 12. The Allegheny County Board of Health could vote on it in the fall.
Ichiban had four re-inspections this year and six since 2012, records show. In April, the restaurant received a consumer alert for malfunctioning coolers.
About 25 percent of the 7,200 restaurants the county inspects require re-inspection, Scharding said. The department's 18 inspectors conduct about 10,000 visits a year. “It is a drain on the resources,” she said.
Charging for re-inspections could be instituted even if the health board or County Council reject a proposed restaurant grading system that would post A, B and C grades outside establishments. A pilot program testing the grading system started on Tuesday, Thompson said.
Many restaurant owners oppose it, claiming that the system in place keeps the public safe and that grades are misleading and could run restaurants out of business.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or firstname.lastname@example.org.