NEWPORT, Ky. -- In the four years that WCPO has reported on local restaurant inspections, no Northern Kentucky restaurants have ever been among the region's top 10 violators.
But that doesn't mean health inspectors south of the Ohio River are going easy on food service operations there.
In fact, the Northern Kentucky Health Department shut down 11 businesses temporarily in 2016 after problematic food service inspections. Two of those -- a Gold Star Chili in Independence and Bernhard's Bakery in Newport -- ended up closing permanently after troubling inspection results.
The health department's goal is not to put people out of business, but instead to ensure that food service operations are meeting the health department's standards and are safe for the public, said Ted Talley, the department's environmental health manager.
"Instead of giving you this terrible score and then walking away for six months, you might get a score with critical violations that have to be corrected in a short time frame," added Emily Gresham Wherle, the health department's public information officer.
Unlike agencies in Southwest Ohio, the Northern Kentucky Health Department gives each establishment a score after every inspection. A business starts out with a score of 100, and points are deducted for each violation. Critical violations, such as improper hand-washing or spoiled food that could make people sick, result in higher point deductions than non-critical violations, such as dirty wiping cloths or walls that aren’t kept clean.
In the Ohio inspection results that WCPO examines each year, every individual example of a violation is counted as a separate violation. In Kentucky, additional examples are noted as "observations" and do not count against the overall score. As a result, when WCPO ranks restaurants and other food service establishments by the number of violations they receive, Ohio businesses tend to have more.
"In Kentucky, the score says something," Talley said, more so than counting the number of violations.
Expediting the closing process
Any score below a 60 in Kentucky results in a business being required to cease operations immediately. Problems such as a rodent infestation or a loss of power or water also can result in the health department shutting down a business temporarily, Talley said.
The former Gold Star Chili restaurant on Joseph E. Schmiade Road in Independence, for example, was ordered to close after an Oct. 26, 2016 inspection. The business received a score of 70, but violations included employees drinking in food prep areas, equipment on a back prep table "with roach droppings and pieces of dead insects inside." The inspector also "observed live cockroaches on food prep surfaces, under counters, above three compartment sink and in small crevice between wall and exhaust vent." The inspector went back two days later and found all the same problems.
A note on the Oct. 28 follow-up inspection said Dave Mayerick, Gold Star Chili's vice president of operations, confirmed the location would be permanently closed.
In a written statement to WCPO, Gold Star Chili Director of Marketing Mickey Kamfjord said the Independence location "was already slated to be closed or relocated as the restaurant did not meet our facility standards and could not be updated to be in compliance in its current location. The board of health inspection did cause us to expedite the closing process."
Bernie Hoelmer, the owner of the other closed business, Bernhard's Bakery in Newport, did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
The York Street location scored a 93 during a Sept. 20, 2016 follow-up inspection but was ordered to close immediately nonetheless. The reason listed on the inspection form was "due to imminent health hazard (roach infestation)."
Hoelmer told The River City News in December that the City of Newport forced him to close because he couldn't afford to repair and replace electrical systems in the building.
A sign dated Nov. 28 that remains taped on the storefront's window declares the building "condemned as unfit for human occupancy or other use."
Checking for 'rodent activity'
For other Northern Kentucky businesses that had to close temporarily last year, restaurant managers and owners resolved the problems quickly.
Representatives of several of those businesses declined to discuss the temporary closures with WCPO.
Those establishments included Casual Chinese in Newport, which was closed July 14 after "repeated" critical violations but reopened July 18 with a follow-up inspection score of 100.
The Snappy Tomato Pizza on Taylor Mill Road in Independence closed for two days last fall after a Sept. 19 report found a variety of problems, including "soiled utensils and containers stored clean above three compartment sink." The restaurant scored a 98 on a follow-up inspection two days later.
Gramma’s Pizza in Florence last May, inspectors closed May 10 because of a sewer backup that posed an “imminent health hazard.” It re-opened the same day.
The Holiday Inn on Freedom Way in Florence closed for two days last May after 19 violations produced a food-safety score of 50. All 19 violations were corrected by May 6 and Holiday Inn has improved, scoring a 99 with one minor violation in its most recent inspection, Nov. 9.
Matsuya Japanese restaurant in Florence closed for a week in October after inspectors found “rodent droppings in food items on dry storage shelving” and five other locations inside the Manderlay Drive steak and sushi house. There was “no evidence of rodent activity” a week later on Oct. 11, when the restaurant scored a 96 on its follow up inspection – much better than its 53 score one week earlier.
A who man identified himself as the owner of Matsuya but declined to reveal his name said it was the first time in 20 years he’s been shut down by health code problems. He blamed the issues on a pest control company and staff reductions after the recession.
At the Horn of Africa Café and coffee shop on Turfway Road, new owner Abdi Hussein improved his scores after taking food-safety training from Northern Kentucky’s health department. Inspectors shut down the restaurant for one day last April because of 20 violations, including “two live roaches” and “unwholesome tomatoes” in a cooler unit.
“The class, I took it a couple weeks ago,” said Hussein, who bought the restaurant in January. “I just had a new inspection. I scored a 92.”
At Bluegrass Restaurant on Mt. Zion Road in Florence, inspectors documented 19 violations on Nov. 3, including “turkey reuben sandwiches with mold” and several food items that were voluntarily discarded because they were past the seven-day “use by” date.
Owner Nick Diamon said he replaced his chef and put a system of daily checklists in place to make sure food-safety procedures are followed.
“We’ve worked closely with the health department to assure that we are taking the right steps,” he said. Its most recent score was a 98 on Jan. 19.
Tic Toc Food Mart in Independence, located right next to the closed Gold Star Chili location, got a score of 85 on a complaint-driven inspection on May 26, 2016. But the inspector issued a notice to suspend the store's food license "due to rodent infestation."
During a follow-up inspection on May 31, the store received a score of 100 with a note from the inspector that a pest control company had been there four times since the last inspection. "No evidence of pests," the inspector wrote. "All traps clean."
Store Manager Wayne Patel said the convenience store solved its problems with the health department when it stopped carrying liquid toppings for the frozen yogurt it sells. The toppings didn't sell well anyway, he said, and created problems by attracting pests.
"It's been a good year for the business," he said, adding that the store added a new beer cave, too.
'Our response to it was swift'
The Green Derby, an iconic Newport restaurant, was closed for only four hours last year after getting a score of 52 during an inspection on Aug. 17, said Owner Michael Brauninger.
Brauninger purchased the Green Derby on April 1, 2015 and has invested thousands of dollars since then to replace the restaurant's walk-in cooler, water heaters, sinks and air conditioning.
"Almost every physical thing has had work done or was replaced," he said.
That is one of the reasons he and his staff were so surprised by the low inspection score. One of the problems was noted, for example, as "no cold water available in establishment." Brauninger said the problem was that the cold water coming into the building wasn't as cold as the inspector thought it should be. But the plumbing was fine, and the restaurant had done nothing to create the problem, he said.
For another violation, the inspector noted, "fluorescent lighting not shielded as required above bulk ice machine and rear prep area above slicer."
For that one, the restaurant was missing covers over some lights that were above an ice machine that has a closed door protecting the ice. Having all light fixtures "shielded" is one of the safety standards restaurants are required to meet.
Brauninger and his staff corrected that violation, and at least three others, immediately, he said.
"Our response to it was swift," he said.
When the inspector returned for a follow-up the next day, the restaurant scored a 97. A more recent inspection yielded a perfect score of 100.
"We've taken everything that the health department has said should be done very seriously," Brauninger said. "And between education and training and plan implementation, everything they said to do, we expect to get a 100 on our next one like we did on our last one."
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.
Dan Monk covers business news for WCPO. To read more stories by Dan, go to www.wcpo.com/monk. To reach him, email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanMonk9.