From the Ground Up: The health inspection

The 12th installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read previous From the Ground Up stories

This post has been updated. 

Harrison Suarez and Michael Haft did not expect this day, like the days leading up to it, to go well. They were waiting for a representative from the D.C. Department of Health to inspect their forthcoming coffee shop and roastery, and they were pretty sure they would fail.

"You're going to fail your first one," Suarez's food industry friends told him.

When construction began in February, Haft and Suarez hoped to open Compass Coffee by summer's end, though construction and bureaucratic delays have piled up, and they're getting antsy. Passing a health inspection is the final requirement toward getting a business license, which will legally enable them to open their doors. Once they have passed, they will devote several weeks to their wholesale business, providing coffee for clients such as District Doughnut and Kangaroo Boxing Club, before the Shaw coffee shop begins serving customers. The inspection represents one of the final hurdles to pass after six months of work.

Harrison Suarez, left, sits in the nearly-finished coffeeshop with newly-hired cafe manager Tim Hayes, center. The coffee roaster is in the background (Courtesy of Compass Coffee).
Harrison Suarez, left, sits in the nearly finished coffee shop, with newly-hired cafe manager Tim Hayes, center. (Courtesy of Compass Coffee).

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Potentially failing the health inspection would be the cherry atop a cavalcade of small recent disasters:

Zoning problems came back haunt them. Suarez spent two days in the soul-sucking waiting room at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, being bounced from department to department. Even though he was previously granted zoning relief to add extra seats to the shop, which is classified as a "prepared foods shop," there has been confusion as to whether Compass should be classified as a restaurant instead. After uncertainty between the multiple departments that review such plans, their seating was finally approved. Again.

• Back in the coffee shop, a dishwasher that wasn't properly connected to a water line leaked all over the floor. It would have been easy to clean, except the floor drains are uneven. "The drain over there is actually the high point of the floor, like a volcano," Haft said, pointing to an area beneath the coffee bar. He motioned to a few feet away. "If you were to locate the Pompeii to our Vesuvius, Pompeii lies right here." The water had to be swept into the drain.

• That wasn't as bad as an earlier incident, in which a toilet became clogged and overflowed, sending sewage gurgling through some of the volcano-like drains. It had to be swept back into the drains, which were unclogged by a plumber. "We spent several hours mopping up sewage," Haft said. "The good news is that the floors are 100 percent sealed." The incident did not cause any lasting damage.

• That wasn't the case with a bucket of pipe sealant that was accidentally knocked over, staining the floor permanently. Luckily, it's in a spot obscured by the coffee bar.

"We could do a little Rorschach test," Haft said. "I see a butterfly."

"I see a dragon," Suarez said. (To this reporter, it looks like a rabbit.)

"Maybe it can be our mascot," Haft said.

• After a spate of rainy days, they discovered a leak in the roof, right above their coffee roaster. This was especially problematic as they were supposed to provide freshly roasted beans to their first client, District Doughnut, the next day, but they couldn't roast until the roof was patched. After hours of work, they were finally able to roast at 3 a.m. They packaged and delivered the coffee shortly after sunrise.

• When Haft arrived at District Doughnut to deliver the coffee, the newly opened shop's coffee maker wasn't working properly. Haft had to take it apart to diagnose the problem, which was a bit of residue suck in the brewer that was affecting the flavor of the coffee. He spent the morning fixing the coffee maker, while Suarez prepared for the inspection on his own.

• And then, after they hadn't slept in 24 hours, they were told by the Department of Health that their previously scheduled Thursday health inspection appointment was not in the department's system. Suarez was told that he hadn't followed proper procedure for setting up the appointment. They waited four hours on the off chance an inspector would show up, anyway. He didn't.

____

Which brings us to the following Monday, when the cordial but brisk DOH sanitary inspector Bruce Flippens strolled into the shop. Flippens has a reputation for being tough.

"He's a legendary food inspector," Haft said. "Feared."

After a few pleasantries, Flippens put on his reading glasses and inspected their blueprints. "What happened to the two-compartment sink?" he asked. "Where's the rest of the equipment?" "We haven't bought it yet," Suarez said. "We're planning on doing that as we make money." Flippens noticed that one of the dishwashers in the plans was also absent. "You're kind of throwing me off, because when we come up, we expect all the equipment to be in place," he said.

He checked to see that Compass had procured contracts for pest control and trash removal, and that a member of the staff had been certified as a food safety manager. He ran the faucets in the kitchen and coffee bar until they were steamy before recording the water temperature. He continued to ask questions.

Compass Coffee's hand sink, an important part of the health inspection (Courtesy of Compass Coffee).
Compass Coffee's hand sink. (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

"Is this the tasting room?" Haft and Suarez opened the steel-and-glass doors.

"Can you run the dishwasher please?" Flippens tested the water to see that it reached the minimum operating temperature of 120 degrees.

"The hand sink?" Haft and Suarez pointed simultaneously.

As he walked around the shop, Flippens flagged things that could be improved: The water flow in a disposal in the kitchen could be redirected; a thermometer in a fridge could be moved to a better spot.

After 20 minutes, the verdict arrived.

"Okay guys, there are two things you need to do before you pass the inspection," Flippens said. "One is, you need to remove the disposal in here. In a commercial kitchen, you cannot have a disposal underneath any of the sink compartments. It has to be plumbed and trapped separately."

He then pointed to a section of wall underneath the coffee bar's countertop where pipes were exposed. "And you have to box-in your conduits here. No unnecessarily exposed pipes and conduits. As it is now, it would hinder you from cleaning the walls properly."

Flippens gave them 45 days to correct the conduits. But if they could get the disposal properly configured within 24 hours, they would pass on their first try.

And to their surprise and disbelief, they did.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs performed the health inspection. Sanitary inspector Bruce Flippens is an employee of the Department of Health.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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