Even though she shows up unannounced, Laurie Wentworth’s visits to area kitchens shouldn’t come as any big surprise to area restaurants.
That’s because food safety inspectors are required to check conditions every six months — more if complaints are filed.
“They are pop-in inspections,” said Dannella Burnett, owner of Oakwood Occasions, a catering and event-planning company, which operates the OO Cafe. “They need to be that way, so you don’t prepare for the inspection so you are caught doing it right or you are caught not doing it right.”
But not all restaurateurs necessarily throw down the welcome mat.
“We have had some people who have refused us entry,” said Wentworth of Hall County’s environmental health department. “We can bring a (county) marshal, and we’ve had a few (incidents) over the years where that’s had to happen.”
Such is the life of a food inspector. The hours can fluctuate based on eateries’ hours of operation, the treatment can be unfriendly and the findings can be — well, gross.
“I’ve been to some places where they’ve had insect infestations ... where they are everywhere, in containers with cellophane wrap and (they’re) coming out of the containers,” said Wentworth, who has worked with the department for 15 years.
Burnett has never had any poor inspections at her Oakwood business — scoring 100s on her past three inspections — but has seen firsthand the result of a bacteria outbreak at a Virginia restaurant.
“Each of the employees had to go through testing,” she said. “We had to be tested to make sure we were not the problem.”
The problem turned out to be a bad batch of lettuce, Burnett said.
But employees are trained and required to safely handle all food and equipment, which is exactly what food inspectors examine.
“Everything from receiving (food) to storing it to prepping it to the finished product, that’s their concern,” Burnett said. “Their concern is the food you are serving is healthy for the consumer.”
The environmental health department offers classes in basic food safety for all food-service personnel as an ongoing program.
For new permit holders, the class is free within three months of receiving the food permit, according to the department’s website, www.hallcounty.org/devserv/environmental.asp.
The state requires each restaurant to have a “certified food safety manager.”
“Our job is to come in and evaluate what the manager is teaching ... (and) to make sure they are teaching the employees what they need to know to run a safe food operation,” Wentworth said.
Keeping a kitchen clean is not difficult, Burnett said.
“The challenge is everybody doing it consistently,” she said. “It has to be from the owner to the chef to the dishwasher and the server. Everybody is aware of (his or her) part to protect the consumer and not make them sick.”
Therefore, Wentworth is systematic in her inspections, starting with her own cleanliness.
“The first thing we always do is wash our hands” before each inspection, Wentworth said.
Then she checks temperatures, coolers, salad bars, how food is stored and whether it needs to be covered. Typically, inspections last about an hour.
“Risks for foodborne illnesses (are) our main focus,” Wentworth said, adding restaurant appearance is secondary.
“What’s happening with hand-washing and food temperatures — those are the kinds of things (that are) going to make somebody sick,” she said. “If the floor is kind of dirty, we can write that (in the report), but it’s not going to make somebody sick.”
Wentworth said some restaurant officials have refused to sign the inspection.
“That goes into their permanent record,” she said. “We’ve been thrown out of a few places, but that’s OK. We can handle that.”
Inspectors can’t leave “unless some things are corrected,” Wentworth said.
And businesses typically don’t resist much in that area.
“Most people agree that you can’t serve (potentially contaminated) food, because if you make somebody sick, that’s worse than anything — that’s worse than a bad score,” she said. “If somebody got sick there, that could hurt their business.”
Restaurants can choose to close if corrections can’t be made in a timely manner, Wentworth said.
“If we come back a second time and they still get a (failing grade), we have to close them,” she said.
As long as they’re open, restaurants have to post inspection scores 15 feet from the main entrance.
“To be honest, the number doesn’t really mean anything,” Wentworth said. “We look at what’s wrong. The number is just something to give the public something to relate to.”
Because of her job and all that she sees, “I think my family has suffered, because we don’t cook as much as we used to,” she said, with a laugh.
“Sometimes, though, you’re inspired and you think, ‘Wow, I can (fix) that at home,’” Wentworth said.