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Take a Number

Does the health department's grading system ensure safe restaurants? Or is it just fuzzy math?

Last month News Hostage columnist Richard Connelly reported ("Bayou City Beat-up," December 7, 2000) on an incident involving the Houston Health and Human Services Department, the KPRC-TV news department and a little enterprise called Midtown Bagel and Coffee [2507 Bagby, (713)522-0522]. It was a wonderful snapshot of competing forces in the big city at the dawn of the 21st century, sort of a ten-paragraph precis of a Tom Wolfe novel.

The story began with a young couple, Christian and Bonnie Busker, opening a business of their own, their first such stab at the American dream. It is a small bagel bakery in a strip center in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood south of downtown. The shop opened on December 6, 1999. Over the subsequent year, Christian Busker relates, a health department inspector cited the shop for a variety of violations involving the physical setup of the operation, such as not putting a vent hood over an electric bagel toaster.

Meanwhile, across town, KPRC reporter Tony Kovaleski was pursuing his own version of the American dream, to be a consumer advocate in the great Marvin Zindler tradition. Kathy Barton, chief of public affairs for the health department, remembers that Kovaleski and an assistant "spent hours and hours here." "He said he was looking for the ten worst restaurants," she says. Barton then explained that the health department uses a grade system, "from one to four -- if a restaurant gets a four, we will close it down for a while." However, if a restaurant gets a number of twos or threes, the report form that is available to the public does not specify the problems that led to the citation.

In his report on repeat offenders, Kovaleski put Midtown Bagel at the top of the list of restaurants that were "out of compliance with health department directives." The problem was, by the time the report aired, the Buskers claim, they had reached an agreement with the health department on all of the structural issues raised, none of which had to do with roach droppings or spoiled meat. Kovaleski never called Midtown for a comment, even though his report, the Buskers say, caused their business volume to drop by at least 30 percent. (Things are "returning to normal" now, Christian Busker adds.)

Ignoring whether the KPRC report was fair or not, let's look at the health department itself. Is its system the best one to protect the public from whatever evils lurk in our local restaurants? Could Midtown Bagel's "violations" have endangered the public in some way?

Many restaurateurs feel that the system is not working properly. One chef/owner of a highly regarded Galleria-area restaurant says flatly, "They are out of control." As an example, he says, "In two years, if I'm still in business, I'm supposed to spend $50,000 to get a new refrigeration system that will keep food at 40 degrees rather than 43 degrees. Are they going to send me a check?"

Another master chef/owner reports that within two weeks of opening for business, someone not happy with his seriously competitive operation called health inspectors because the new restaurant's Food Manager Certification Program certificate was not hung in a public place. An inspector showed up, "walking around like he owned the place, and he closed the place down," the chef says. "Not displaying the certificate is considered a 'critical offense,' the most serious level of offense. He also asked my sous-chef for his Food Manager Certificate card, and when he did not have it on him, he fined him $500. Of course, I'll pay the fine. I had to go to the health department's offices and get the certificate, which had already been issued, and return with it to the restaurant before we could reopen."

Yvonne Lemmon, executive director of the Houston Restaurant Association, agrees that not having the certificate or card on hand, or not having a certified person on duty, is "the No. 1 violation." Still, Lemmon is not without some reservations regarding the health department. She observes that "the problem with the scoring system is that they don't tell the restaurateur that he or she received a one, two or three. The restaurateur has to ask as the inspector is leaving, or go look it up. Our members need to be educated on that."

Mickey Kapoor, owner of Khyber North Indian Grill [2510 Richmond, (713)942-9424], has some interesting thoughts on the subject. "I have never had a problem with the health department," Kapoor begins. "Fortunately, I was trained by Nazis." (Mr. Kapoor is relaying, in his always quotable way, that he first trained in the restaurant business in Salzburg, Austria.)

"For a lot of years, I have always told people, when you go for a haircut, you see all these licenses on the wall. But here in Houston, there is no license for a cook -- someone who is putting things in your body. That is why I refer to the Food Manager Certification Program as the Food Manager Scapegoat Program. They should write the actual citations to the person who is in violation, and they should train everyone, which is what is done in Germany and Austria. Houston could become the national standard-bearer in this regard.

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