CINCINNATI — Ryan Ridgely is not a typical food court customer.
A seven-year veteran of the pest-control industry, Ridgely has developed a heightened awareness of insects and rodents.
“I can smell a mice problem. I can smell if there’s a large number of German cockroaches,” he said. “If I walk into a restaurant and smell it, I won’t be eating there that night. But I will drop off a business card and stop back on Monday.”
Ridgely is the service and quality assurance director for Perfection Pest Control Inc. in Union, Ky. For more than two years, he was in charge of pest prevention at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. So he wasn’t surprised to learn that seven local shopping centers had food-safety violations involving insects, flies, rodents and other pests in 2015.
At Kenwood Towne Centre, for example, Hamilton County inspectors “observed the presence of live insects” at Gold Star Chili, Bourbon Street Grill, Aroma Restaurant & Sushi and Fresh Healthy Café. General Manager Wanda Wagner-Turiak said the safety of its guests "are of paramount importance" to the mall.
"We support and cooperate fully with all health department inspections," she said. "Any time a violation or infraction is discovered, we require and expect our food vendors to take immediate corrective action."
Eastgate Mall's food court has suffered from a “low-level, chronic kind of infestation” since 2012, said Rob Perry, environmental health director for Clermont County. In a written response to questions from WCPO, Eastgate Mall regional marketing director Sean Phillips said: "Eastgate Mall hires a third-party company to inspect and treat the mall common areas, including the Food Court, as needed. In addition our tenants are required to do the same by lease agreement."
So what’s a diner to do? Think like an exterminator.
“I can walk into a shopping center or ball park or even a restaurant and I can pick out very quickly if they have conditions conducive to a pest problem," Ridgely said. “If you don’t see a lot of food debris or organic matter built up in corners, under equipment or on the counters, it’s less likely there is going to be a pest problem.”
This is the fourth year that WCPO has offered an in-depth look at food-safety violations at multiple health department jurisdictions in the Tri-State. It’s the only place where you can find all violations from seven area counties and two municipalities. It’s the only place where you can learn how individual restaurants stack up against more than 5,000 others in the region.
This is the second year that WCPO has parceled out its data into “public places.” These are the sports venues, arenas, convention centers and cultural attractions that fly under the radar in health-code violation reports because they are licensed under multiple names.
Paul Brown Stadium, for example, has more than 50 locations separately licensed by the Cincinnati Health Department. Newport on the Levee has more than 20 locations that serve food. When you combine these violations, you get a better sense for the safety of the food at your favorite sports or music venue, casino, mall, museum or amusement park.
The public places database lets you search by 10 different categories. New to this year’s list are hospitals, colleges and “corporate kitchens,” or cafeterias that provide easy access to breakfast and lunch for employees of big companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., Macy’s, Fifth Third Bank, Western & Southern Financial Group and Toyota.
The Power of Grandmas
To search the database, use the “categories” and “places” filters to find the public place you want to learn about. Then scroll through the list of all food-license holders that received violations in 2015. The locations are ranked by a point system that awards one point for non-critical violations and three points for critical infractions, which include hand-washing lapses, improper food temperatures and pest infestation. In short, the critical violations are things that could make people sick.
Even with the challenges of multiple food service locations, public places typically shouldn't have serious violations that make people sick, said O. Peter Snyder, president of Snyder HACCP, a food-safety consulting firm near St. Paul, Minnesota.
"There usually is a little bit more oversight from the corporate headquarters," Snyder said. "Or the mall itself will run a simple inspection program to make sure the people in the mall are in good shape and are pleasing the customers."
A stadium or ballpark can be an exception to that rule, he said, because of the way the vendors there tend to serve customers.
"The traffic during break time is so great between innings or whatever, and they can get careless," Snyder said. "You have to serve the customers, and the lines are so long. There's a tendency to cut corners in order to serve the customers."
That can result in loading up the hotdog grill so that the meat doesn't get hot enough all the way through, but the concession stand serves them anyway, he said.
Those problems can be exacerbated when volunteers staff concession stands, as they do at some local venues to raise money for their schools or clubs. But that depends on who is volunteering, he said.
"If you have a bunch of grandmothers around, then things don't go wrong," Snyder said. "But if you have a bunch of teenagers around, then they're going to cut corners."
Hospitals typically have someone monitoring food safety, too, Snyder said.
One key is for employees to wear gloves as they dish up the food they serve.
Those gloves reduce the risk of problems if the people serving the food haven't washed their hands properly after using the bathroom or working with raw ingredients.
"If a customer looks for gloves, and they don't see gloves, they probably should even say something to the employee," Snyder said.
Food safety violations can happen anywhere, though. Even at the corporate kitchens of the Procter & Gamble Co.
Salmon, Sushi and Rice Krispies Treats
P&G has 16 different food-service locations in the Cincinnati area, but only five of them received citations in 2015. The biggest violators were P&G’s biggest kitchens: Downtown at the consumer-product giant’s corporate headquarters.
“Together with our food service provider, Compass, our goal is to provide great food, convenient service and a vibrant and collaborative environment,” said P&G spokesperson Tressie Rose.
P&G ranked first among all corporate kitchens with 82 violations on six dates in 2015. Cincinnati inspectors found 19 violations in the most recent inspection at the P&G Tower Building Cafeteria. The Dec. 17 review uncovered “large bins of cut greens held at room temperature,” which should have been below 41 degrees, and “uncovered foods on rolling carts.” The carts are supposed to have a sneeze guard.
Rose said P&G had an increase in food violations last year in part because it offered new food options to employees: rotating stations with specialty items and foods made to order. That resulted in some problems related to food labeling, display temperatures and protective coverings designed to keep one customer’s germs from spreading to another.
But a close reading of the violations shows also an impressive array of menu choices: Salmon, sushi, crab salad, lasagna, salad bar, deli meats and a confections menu that included Rice Krispies treats, brownies and cookies in a jar.
“I eat there a good portion of the time,” Rose said. “My personal experience is, the food is convenient. I have a lot of options. And it’s a good thing to offer for employees.”
Corporate kitchens ranked in the middle of the pack when it comes to the number and severity of food violations compared to the total number of licensed food-service locations at each location.
At the bottom of the list were convention centers, a category in which no single food stand had more than five violations. At the top of the list were local colleges, which had 35 different facilities averaging 9.8 violations each last year.
The University of Cincinnati led all colleges with 165 violations at 16 food-service locations.
At UC’s Stadium View café, for example, an inspector in December found a grill that was “not designed to accommodate amount of grease generated daily.”
"One instance of noncompliance is one too many. Our goal is zero," said John Hautz, UC's director of food services. "And with that goal in mind, we do the best we can."
In all, UC has 50 different points of food service and serves roughly 3 million meals a year, Hautz said. Those meals can range from a cup of coffee at Starbucks to a full meal.
The sheer volume of all those food-service operations — staffed by more than 300 employees — is challenging. But the university works to correct problems as soon as they're discovered and has a training program in place to educate employees about safe food handling twice a year.
"My youngest is in his sophomore year up here. I've had three students who have all attended UC. I attended UC — I'm an alum," Hautz said. "What happens here is very important to me, and we want to get it right."
The University of Cincinnati Medical Center — more commonly known as University Hospital — also led local hospitals with 70 violations in three inspections.
Hospital spokesperson Diana Maria Lara said in a written statement to WCPO that UC Health works "closely with the vendors and contractors who operate our food service to ensure very high standards. The Health Department is an important partner in helping us to set and keep standards high, and we take inspection reports very seriously."
As soon as hospital officials learned about the violations in the cafeteria and restaurant, "we directed the work of our vendors and contractors to address all violations from 2015 and that work has been completed."
The hospital also is conducting self-inspections of its food service areas, she said, "including daily rounds by food service managers and supervisors" who are trained or certified in ServSafe food safety training designed to prevent food-borne illness.
'Roaches Are Lazy'
Some public places improved their violation counts in 2015. The Cincinnati Zoo dropped from 94 violations in 2014 to 54 last year. Paul Brown Stadium declined 17 percent to 148 violations, while Great American Ball Park declined 49 percent. Its 112 violations included 29 critical violations, 20 of which were corrected on site.
“Each year we respond accordingly to the recommendations from the Health Department and applaud their high standards,” said Victoria Hong, director of corporate communications for Delaware North Sportservice, food vendor for the Cincinnati Reds.
The zoo's food service vendor, Service Systems Associates, or SSA, said in a written statement to WCPO that it "embraces the inspection process as a way to ensure the highest quality visitor experience."
SSA also noted that the zoo received very few critical violations in 2015 and said that every violation marked as critical was addressed immediately or shortly after the health inspector left.
"SSA maintains a proactive approach to ensure their facilities are in compliance," the statement said. "Two well-known national and professional companies are contracted to perform inspections four times a month to maintain pest control and ensure machines are clean and within compliance regulations."
Turfway Park ranked worst among gambling facilities. It had 83 violations, including more than 50 for cleaning and maintenance issues. Miami Valley Gaming had only one violation – no soap at the hand-washing sink – in April 2015.
"We have taken significant steps to address all violations," said Turfway General Manager Chip Bach, "Including the addition of new team members to our food and beverage team, the increase of food safety education courses and replacement of equipment."
Keeping flies out of open-air restaurants and roaches out of mall food courts might seem like a tall order, based on these inspection results.
But local pest control experts say it shouldn't be that difficult.
For shopping malls, the most efficient way to combat pest problems is for mall management to take charge of pest control services for everyone, said Kurt Scherziner, general manager of Cincinnati-based ScherZinger Pest Control.
That's because when different food service operations use different exterminators, those exterminators often use different methods to attack the problem.
"Deploying different methods can actually fight against each other," Scherzinger said. "Especially with roaches and even some flies and ants, if you go at it the wrong way, you can make the problem worse."
Shopping centers and other public places also can aggravate their pest problems with decorative fountains placed in their lobbies or food courts, Scherzinger said.
"Those fountains are a nightmare," he said. "It's a constant water source. There's always a motor to it. That motor keeps it warm. And there's plenty of food with crumbs being dropped. It makes it ideal for any roach."
The key to keeping roaches and other pests at bay, Scherzinger said, is a "really, really good sanitation program."
Cleaning, in fact, can be the solution to some roach problems, especially the mild cases.
"Roaches are lazy, like any organism. They're only going to go as far as they have to for food," Scherzinger said. "They're not going to move if they have a buffet for them."
Or as Perfection Pest Control's Ridgely put it: “If people fixed what’s broken and cleaned up after themselves, I wouldn’t have a job.”