HAZEL BURKE had been sticking thermometers into tuna fish salads, angling her flashlight into ice boxes and traipsing through meat freezers for the last 25 years. Before becoming a health inspector, she used to manage The Flagship restaurant, the only other job she's had. Burke says she's tired of seeing dirt, but probably won't retire for another five years. Friends of outspoken Burke tell her she has a lot of nerve wearing white suits to work. She's always getting grease splattered on her in the kitchens, and her cleaning bills are exorbitant.
Georgetown is Burke's current inspection area. The worst part of her job is the parking, she says. Burke eats at the Roy Rogers on Wisconsin Avenue often, because it's convenient. Though she saunters into restaurants with a hello for everyone, Burke says the nature of her position automatically creates defensiveness. "They [the restaurantuers] smile at you, but they really don't like you. But I like them. I'm just doing them a favor."
The restauranters interviewed agree with her, though, on the need for health inpsectors. "We definatley need them, otherwise things would get relaxed," said John Richardson, chef at Charlie's Georgetown.
Restauranteurs sometimes complain that their quarterly ratings can vary depending on who's doing the inspecting; each inspector has his or her own pet peeves, is stricter or more lenient than another. "If they're having a bad day, they tear you apart," said Sharrief Tate the chef at The Georgetown, a home for the elderly. "Sometimes they crawl under the tables, and sometimes they barley shine a flashlight. And a lot depends on the rapport you have with the inspector."
Variance from one inspector to another in inevitable, according to Arnold Clark, deputy administrator of the health department, because "people are differnt; you can't get them to see things absolutley the same." To allow for differing points of view, inspectors are periodicaly switched to other zones.
There are 1,200 restaurants in D.C. -- each of which must be inspected four times a year -- and 13 inspectors to do the job. To help the health department keep things tidy, inspectors use a score sheet based on a scale of 0 to 100. Scoring 90 or above three times in a row gets a restaurant a "certificate of merit;" 85 to 100 is passing and 70 to 84 means reinspection. Below 70 is flunking and immediate suspension of a restaurant's license -- that means shutting down until they clean up. A single violation is enough to close a restaurant if the inspector and supervisor feel the violation clearly represnts a major health hazard. It takes the judgement of two people to close a restaurant and two to reopen it. When it is cleaned up and ready for reinspection, the restaurant notifies the health department.
In 1980, there were 102 closures (including food stores, restaurants, wholesale houses, etc.), 2,534 reinspection notices issued and 33 certificates of merit.
Inspector Burke said the most common violation she finds is improper food storage. "It really comes down to the restaurants having to stay on the backs of their help," she said. "They tell them to put the potatoes in storage and the help doesn't do it right."
It was a Monday morning in early March and the first stop was the McDonald's on 19th and K Streets. The manager didn't allow this reporter to enter the kitchen with the inspector. Store policy -- for safety reasons -- allows no guests in with the health inpsector.
"If a restaurant doesn't allow me in, I leave, although I'm legally allowed in," said Castillo, a former dietician. It doesn't happen often, Castillo said, but when it does, she calls her supervisor, Grover Tate, and he calls the restaurant. "The job doesn't pay enough to take risks," she said, recalling how an inspector was once chased out by a restauranter's dog.
Next stop was Goldberg's Deli on K St. "This hot water doesn't work," she said to the manager as he watched her poke around the kitchen. She used a dim flashlight to scan the innards of a large, empty soup kettle, and worked her way to the ovens and grill, searching for grease and rust.
The right side of the grill wasn't working and Castillo commented that considerable grease was stuck to the sides. "There's a lot of dust on your counter and people can see it," she added. She opened the door to the walk-in refigerator and stepped inside. A can of peaches was rusty. "Throw that away, please," she told the cook who had escorted her into the 42-degree icebox.
After an hour of poking, checking the sale dates on the potato chips and dairy products and glancing through the storeroom, the verdict was an 88. Two points off for unclean floors, two points off for unfilled holes in the wall (that's where roaches could come in, Castillo explained), two points off for a dirty grill and six point off for grease under the cutting board, dust on the countertop and the broken faucet.
Although sometimes Castillo enjoys the independence of a job away from the office, there are times she doesn't feel like going out at all. "It's too cold, it's too hot or it's rainy." The job has its excitement, though, said Castillo -- like inspecting the food at the 1980 Inguaural balls, the hot dog stand at an all-star baseball game, or the feeding stations during the late '60s protest marches.
Number three inpsection of five on Castillo's schedule was the Black Horse Tavern on 20th St. NW. Castillo announced her presence at the tavern and waited a few minutes until the manager was ready for her to enter the kitchen. ("They always start wiping things when you walk in," she said earlier adding, "but I'd probably do the same thing.") She requested a menu. The reason: checking for violations of the truth-in-menu regualtion, which requires that what's on the menu is what gets on you plate. Among the entrees on the Tavern's new menu were fresh lox, fresh shrimp and scallops and kosher corned beef.
Castillo told manager Mark Cokins that she wanted to see the food in question -- packages, labels and all. The lox, shrimp and scallops had been frozen; the corned beef was non-kosher. Among Cokinos' responses: "I don't think you can get fresh scallops, I don't think I'd want fresh scallops, they're too perishable." "Blackie's [the owner's] daughter-in-law made the menu up and she didn't even get into the kitchen . . . Can't you give us a break? This is our first day with the new menu. And it cost us $700 to print."
Castillo only noted the violations without deducting and points; she said that points cannot be taken off the restaurant's score for truth-in-menu violations. A later check with the health department contradicted her impression and confirmed that points should have been deducted.
The restaurant's response to Castillo's findings was to cross off some of the inaccurate menu items and to have the staff tell diners they were out of others. Frank Economides, the new manager, reported that they are expecting their newly revised menus any day now.
During inspections, inspectors skim the menu looking for possible untruths. Among the claims they check for homemade baked goods, superior cuts of beef or geographic origin of products. In a survey done in Washington in 1977, restaurants were found to be particularly lax with such claims as "fresh shrimp" (it's often frozen), "chicken salad" (it's frequently commercially cooked turkey), "chopped sirloin" (it's like to be commercial ground beef) and "cream" (it's usually half-and-half). During a recent inspection of Charlie's Georgetown, the Smithfield ham listed on the menu wasn't and the Maryland crabmeat had no proof that it was from Maryland.
Restaurateurs claim that the regulation is sometimes nitpicking: Clyde's owner John Laythem said they took their foot-long hot dogs off the menu because one inspector found a few to be 11 1/2 -inches long. Connie Klier of Woodward and Lothrop's recalled the time they were penalized because they couldn't prove their "Alaskan shrimp" was from Alaska. According to Koier, the invoice said "Alaskan shrimp," but the cans said "packed in Oregon."
Carl Deiner's hands are clean. They should be -- he washes them about 10 times a day. Deiner is adamant about restaurants maintaining hot and cold running water, and that was the first thing he checked during the re-inspection of Woodward and Lothrop's Tea Room restaurant on a March afternoon. On its last inspection 18 days prior, the restaurant received a 74, and Deiner was returning to make sure the violations were cleaned up. He did a total inspection of the huge kitchen, but concentrated on the former violations -- unclean floors under equipment, a rusty icebox and peeling paint.
Looking like a Hollywood film detective, with gray trench coat and dark-framed glasses, he shined his flashlight under the chopping tables, in the backs of drawers and between sets of shelves, looking for clues of dirt, roaches and rodents. He found rodent droppings on a liquor shelf. "If they had been in a non-dry goods area, I really would have gotten excited," Deiner said.
The tea room passed reinspection with an 86 this time, but no such luck for Counter Culture, the cafeteria on the Down-Under floor of Woodie's. Its score: 72. Deiner put up a sanitation warning near the cash register, to alert customers that this eating establishment was "under probation" with the health department. Among the violations: chicken salad and shrimp salad at 54 degrees (perishable items must be refrigerated at 45 degrees or less), rodent and roach harborage. The almost 100-year-old building in combination with recent remodeling make what could be an easy breeding ground for the pests.
Eight days later, Counter Culture was reinspected. It passed, with a score of 86. No refrigeration problem this time and no signs of rodents, but the inspector still found roaches.
Detecting rodents and roaches in D.C. restaurants is not uncommon. The health department reports that over half of the 100 complaints they receive a month from diners are roach or rodent-related.
Only one employe was flipping burgers at Wendy's on Bladensburg Road NE when inspector Ronald Schwartz arrived May 8 at 10:30 a.m. Schwartz usually stays away from restaurants during peak lunch and dinner hours because the kitchens are busy and a snooping inspector isn't exactly encouraging to diners. This way, too, he avoids operational dirt -- the mess in the kitchen as the food is being prepared. (What they're after, as inspector Burke had put it, is "the ground-in stuff."
Like the other inspectors, he put a thermometer in the refrigerator, checked for hot and cold running water and shined a flashlight into the ice coolers. Unscrewing the spigot on a soda machine was important here; the Coke syrup can accumulate on the inside, making it sticky and prone to bacteria. Wendy's scored a 90, maintaining its certificate of merit (above 90 for 3 inspections in a row), but was demerited for broken equipment: garbage disposal, lighting and mop sink.
Schwartz, who is a regular at fast-food chain inspections, says that with limited menus, and no dishes to contend with, fast-food restaurants have a greater potential for cleanliness than full-service restaurants. Furthermore, the walls, floors and equipment are designed to be easy to clean. f
By the time Schwartz left Wendy's, the staff was busy flipping burgers and dispensing fries and sodas. Schwartz doesn't eat lunch at the places he inspects, although he might come back when he's not inspecting. Generally, he doesn't eat out much. But when he does, he said, at least he knows where not to eat.
Some inspectors say that what they like most about their job is that every day brings something new -- different people, different problems, good places, bad places. Time isn't a factor: The inspections done two months ago could have happened a month ago, a year ago or yesterday. Chance is a factor: for restaurateurs, the dirty coffee urn may just have been scheduled for cleaning when that unannounced inspector came calling. For inspectors, they're only there for one hour of the day, and as Mike Palm's manager Ed Winsten put it, "they don't get to see the horror stories."
Comments from restaurateurs are as varied as the inspectors themselves. "They don't do quite a thorough a job as they could," said The Fishery chef and manager Paul Morgan, "like looking in the cracks and crevices." "Very thorough," said Florida Avenue Grill manager Joe Wilson. "Too much attention to unnecessary details," said Chef Robert Greault of Le Bagatelle."It would be better if they had restaurant experience," said another.
Foster Robinson, chief of the food protection division of the health department, doesn't think there's so much variation. "We have regulations to back up our opinions," he said, adding, "If the temperature of the refrigerator is 60 degrees, it's too high. If there's rats, there's rats."