Would you like fruit flies with that?
Over the past six months, popular Ann Arbor restaurants and bars have received health code violations for dirty cutlery, food cooked at improper temperatures and the presence of fruit flies.
But in interviews over the summer with The Michigan Daily, local restaurant managers and owners of establishments with violations said that these problems have been corrected and their restaurants comply with all health codes. A few owners permitted the Daily to tour their cooking areas in an effort to prove that changes had been implemented.
Every restaurant in Ann Arbor that is open year-round has unannounced inspections twice a year by the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Division. Inspection results are a matter of public record on the Washtenaw County Environmental Health Department’s website and are divided into critical and non-critical categories according to the Michigan Food Law.
There are eight sanitarians who inspect restaurants, as well as day care centers and swimming pools across Washtenaw County. From Jan. 1 to June 30 there were 1,304 critical violations and 4,473 non-critical violations in the county, according to Kristen Schweighoefer, an environmental health supervisor for Washtenaw County.
This summer, the Daily looked into how some student hot spots like Sava’s State Street Café, New York Pizza Depot, Raja Rani and Bar Louie held up to Washtenaw County health inspection reports.
Sava’s kitchen temperature hotter than usual
In an exclusive tour given to the Daily, Sava Lelcaj, owner of Sava’s, addressed her restaurant’s previous critical violations. The restaurant received several counts of food maintained at improper temperatures, unclean food contact surfaces and improper labeling of some ready-to-eat foods during a June 9 inspection.
Lelcaj said the temperature of the food in the preparatory areas was higher than usual because the inspection took place on a 90-degree day during lunch hour, when heat from outside comes in through open doors. The food bins containing the ingredients need to stay open during the lunch period due to the increased number of customers, Lelcaj said.
Schweighoefer wrote in an e-mail interview that the weather should not affect standard food temperatures.
“The outside temperature should not have any bearing on a restaurant’s ability to keep its facility clean or to follow the requirements of the food code,” Schweighoefer wrote.
During the June inspection, Sava’s received a non-critical violation for fruit flies that were present in the upstairs bar and around the soiled linen area downstairs, where tablecloths are kept before being sent out to be laundered.
Lelcaj said the flies are naturally attracted to the fresh fruit used in the juicing area and the liquor in the bottles of alcohol. Though the fruit is replenished throughout the day and cylindrical cups are placed over the alcohol at night to keep away insects, the flies are still present during the summer, Lelcaj said.
Since the inspection, used alcohol bottles are also now washed out before they are placed in the basement to be recycled, Lelcaj said.
In the health inspection report, the health inspector instructed the restaurant to keep its side and front doors closed to prevent the entry of potential pests. However, the side doors were open at the time of the Daily’s tour.
Lelcaj said after the June inspection, the restaurant tried to keep the doors closed, but it became hazardous for servers walking to the patio while holding trays of food. Therefore, Lelcaj said she chose to keep the doors open until a better solution can be implemented.
Though Lelcaj said she recognizes health inspectors have an important role, she said their suggestions are often hard to follow, like in the case of the doors.
“They are living and doing their job out of a manual, while we are following that manual, but it has to be put into practical use,” Lelcaj said.
In a follow-up inspection one week after the initial report in June, all critical violations had been corrected. Follow-up inspections take place shortly after initial inspections so that health inspectors can see if critical violations have been corrected.
NYPD employees now use gloves
New York Pizza Depot on East William Street received a critical violation in March for an employee handling ready-to-eat food with his or her bare hands.
NYPD owner Anna Grillo said workers wear gloves or use a spatula while handling meats and serving pizza. However, she said the chefs do not wear gloves while preparing pizza dough.
In an e-mail to the Daily, Schweighoefer confirmed that it is acceptable to use bare hands with foods that are going to be fully cooked later.
The pizza parlor also received a non-critical violation for debris found on shelves in its downstairs walk-in cooler, but the restaurant now has a cleaning system in place in which the shelves are cleaned once a month.
Schweighoefer wrote that monthly cleaning is sometimes acceptable for restaurants, though cleaning should occur as often as needed to ensure that the shelves remain free of debris.
“In some places, monthly might be acceptable, in others, they must be cleaned weekly or even more often to prevent (shelves) from being dirty to sight and touch,” she wrote.
During a tour, the owner was unable to find a thermometer in the restaurant’s stand-up refrigerator — a violation that was cited at the time of the inspection — after opening and searching the fridge. However, Grillo said the refrigerator does contain a thermometer.
Indian restaurant changes knife-cleaning procedures
Raja Rani, a restaurant on South Division Street that serves Indian cuisine, had six critical violations at the time of its February 2010 inspection.
Jafvar Fingh, assistant manager of Raja Rani, said the inspector found unclean knives in the kitchen, but the problem has since been corrected. The assistant chef regularly checks the sanitation of the knives while working, according to Fingh.
During the inspection, the inspector spotted an employee handling food with his or her bare hands when he or she should have been wearing gloves. Fingh said this was a misunderstanding on the part of the employee, and all food that is about to be served is handled with gloves.
As a result of the inspection, the preparation of Raja Rani’s Tandoori Chicken — an Indian dish consisting of chicken, yogurt and various spices — has also been changed. Fingh said the chicken is cooked twice before it is served and cooking temperatures are monitored closely. At the time of inspection, prepared chicken for the lunch buffet was found at 30 degrees below its proper temperature.
In a follow-up inspection about one week later, the health inspector reported that all critical violations had been corrected, Fingh said.
Fruit flies have flown away from Bar Louie
In a July 2010 inspection, Bar Louie on East Liberty Street had critical violations for the presence of flies in the dishwashing and bar areas as well as improper temperatures for hazardous foods.
Brandon Herriott, general manager of Bar Louie, said the establishment has since re-grouted the tiles, which has reduced the number of flies. The compressor for the reach-in cooler — which caused the previously elevated temperatures — has also been replaced and is now functioning normally, Herriott said.
Along with Ann Arbor locals, University students remain the main clientele for restaurants located on Central Campus. While these restaurants cater to college students, Andy Deloney, spokesman for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said violations at college eateries do not differ from those at restaurants in other towns.
“I’ve not noticed that there’s been any sort of increase in violations at establishments on college campuses as opposed to anywhere else,” Deloney said.
With 45 local health departments in the state, Deloney said violations of hand washing, temperature control and cross contamination control pose the largest health risks.
He added that inspections are not meant to punish restaurants but rather to inform them of the areas they need to improve.
To help restaurants meet required food regulations, a statewide law requires every establishment to have a manager certified in an approved food safety and sanitation course, Deloney said.
Because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made changes to the food code in 2000, there are now more categories for violations, Schweighoefer said. As a result, there have been more violations in the past decade, she said.
Schweighoefer also said it can be hard to compare violations from one year to the next because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code — the standard governmental model that establishes regulations for retail and service establishments — changes every couple of years.
Despite the spike in violations, Schweighoefer said she thinks restaurants are doing more to prevent violations and fix those they receive.
“Even though the violations may look like there are more, I think the knowledge of food safety of the restaurants has greatly increased over the last 10 years,” Schweighoefer said.
At the time of its July 12 inspection, BTB Cantina on South University Avenue had no critical or non-critical health code violations, which manager Brent Hegwood said was due to his knowledge of the federal food code that he gained during a food safety and sanitation course he took two years ago.
With this knowledge, Hegwood said he was able to effectively communicate food code standards to his employees.
“At the end of the day it comes down to the staff being well-trained and knowing what to do,” Hegwood said.