NEWPORT, Ky. -- The Northern Kentucky Health Department found problems serious enough to shut down three eateries at Newport on the Levee in 2017.
The closures were spread throughout the year.
Axis Alley got a notice to suspend its permit to operate in May after an inspector determined that a malfunctioning grease trap was leaking dirty water into the food prep kitchen and dishwashing area. The business got a perfect score on its follow-up inspection the next day.
Bar Louie was closed for two days in September because of violations that the business had been warned to correct during a meeting with a Kentucky Department of Public Health official.
And Mitchell’s Fish Market was closed for a few days in early December after an inspector found there was no hot water in the restaurant, along with six other critical violations.
But just because the health department found serious problems last year doesn’t mean customers have any reason to worry now, said Ted Talley, the department’s environmental health manager.
“If a restaurant is up and running, then at that time we believe that it’s safe for the public to visit, he said. "If it's not, we take the appropriate action to make sure that it is.”
For all the eateries that are back in business, he said, “We’re saying it’s safe.”
The independent health district serves as the local health department for Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant counties in Northern Kentucky, offering clinical care and community-health planning in addition to regulating food safety. The Newport on the Levee establishments are among 15 businesses that the Northern Kentucky Health Department shut down temporarily in 2017.
One of those other businesses, Taqueria Arandas in Florence, has closed for good.
The health department’s goal is not to put people out of business, but instead to ensure that food service operations meet the agency’s standards and are safe for the public, Talley said.
“Our mission here at the Northern Kentucky Health Department is to prevent disease, promote wellness and to protect against health threats,” he said. “One of the ways we do that is to ensure our restaurants are operating within the parameters of the food code to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses.”
When a health inspection uncovers serious enough violations to suspend a restaurant’s permit to operate, the health department works as quickly as possible to help business owners and managers get the problems fixed, he said.
This marks the fifth year that WCPO has reported on restaurant inspections and the second year of reporting on which Northern Kentucky eateries had their permits suspended.
The health department suspends an average of 12 restaurants’ permits each year, Talley said. Eleven food establishments shut down temporarily or permanently in 2016, compared with 15 last year.
Unlike agencies in Southwest Ohio, the Northern Kentucky Health Department gives each business a score after every inspection. Each establishment starts out with a score of 100, and health inspectors deduct points 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.
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, even if everything else meets standards.
Each restaurant at Newport on the Levee had different circumstances.
Health inspectors typically make unannounced visits to food establishments once every six months, and the problems at Axis Alley were discovered during one of those regular inspections.
Adam Kleinhenz, the general manager of Axis Alley, wrote in an email response to WCPO’s questions that the grease trap at the business “had never failed” but “upon inspection last year the inspector determined it was subject to potential failure.
“Accordingly, Axis Alley installed a new grease trap," Kleinhenz said. "Axis Alley never closed during the short installation and re-inspection process.”
But records show its food license was suspended pending completion of repairs, which can take hours, days or sometimes weeks for restaurants to accomplish and inspectors to verify. Kleinhenz said his business would “continue its standard operating procedure of inspecting and maintaining its facility to ensure guest safety.”
Bar Louie scored a 65 during its regular inspection on Aug. 7, 2017. Any score lower than 70 triggers a notice called an “intent to suspend.” That gives a restaurant a certain number of days to correct the violations, and any business that gets one of those notices is asked to request a conference with the department.
Management for Bar Louie requested the conference, which was held Aug. 30, according to the health department’s records. The health department conducted a follow-up inspection on Sept. 13 and found some of the same problems that had been highlighted during the conference, according to the inspection report.
That’s when the health inspector suspended Bar Louie’s license to operate until the problems were corrected. The business got a perfect score on a subsequent inspection on Sept. 15 and got the go-ahead to resume operations.
“We have taken numerous additional steps to ensure that we continue meeting stringent safety standards,” Bar Louie said in a prepared statement to WCPO. Those included the hiring of a new general manager and kitchen manager. It also retained a food-safety consultant, EcoSure, to provide “monthly inspections including onsite food safety assessments to ensure that our practices align with stringent National Restaurant Association ‘ServSafe’ guidelines.”
An anonymous complaint on Dec. 1 triggered the inspection at Mitchell’s Fish Market. Someone contacted the health department to complain that the restaurant had no hot water available.
It was about time for the restaurant’s regular inspection, Talley said, so the inspector went ahead and conducted one that same day.
The inspector confirmed that the restaurant had no hot water and gave Mitchell’s Fish Market a score of 54, which triggered the suspension of the permit to operate.
The health inspector reinstated the restaurant’s permit on Dec. 4 after giving the restaurant a score of 96 during a follow-up inspection. Mitchell's parent company, Landry's Inc., did not respond to interview requests for this story but its CEO released a statement about its closure in December.
"To ensure food safety, we ceased operations after learning that parts were unavailable for our rooftop water heater," Howard Cole said. "We appreciate the patience of our customers and employees as we worked to get this issue resolved."
For its part, the management at Newport on the Levee said it takes pride in the "safety and experience" of its guests.
"What is most important to know is that every situation brought to our attention is handled with utmost care and attention and we strive to resolve matters promptly and responsibly," said General Manager Barney Estes.
Pests with a Newport address
The Levee wasn’t the only restaurant node in Newport that drew extra attention from inspectors last year. Four restaurants near Newport Pavilion were shut down in 2017: One due to a lack of hot water and three others for pest-control problems.
At the Penn Station’s 1704 Monmouth Street location, inspectors documented a “heavy accumulation of live and dead cockroaches” on Aug. 17, along with seven other critical violations that led to a food score of 51.
Owner William Lanzit said the store was closed for 96 hours “until certain equipment could be replaced.” He declined further comment. The store re-opened with a restaurant score of 97 on Aug. 21.
The Casual Chinese restaurant at 88 Carothers Road was ordered to cease operations May 2 because of a roach infestation that was described as an imminent health hazard on health department records. The problem wasn’t resolved in subsequent inspections on May 5 and May 8. The restaurant was approved for re-opening on May 10 after receiving a perfect inspection score. There was no mention of pests in a November inspection.
"We have been perfect for a very long time," said owner Harry Hsu, who declined further comment.
The Little Caesars restaurant at 17 Carothers Road was ordered to cease operations on May 1 after an inspector found mice "droppings throughout facility" and described “a record of catching at least 22 mice in less than a week causing an imminent health hazard.” On May 10, the restaurant reopened after passing inspection with no violations. Inspectors continued to monitor the issue through May 31, when droppings were observed but no violations were written. "Ken, pest control operator, feels confident there is only one adult left," the report states. A store employee referred WCPO to a district manager, who did not return WCPO's calls.
At Newport Pavilion’s New China Buffet, a customer complaint about “red raw” pork was investigated with no violations on Sept. 30. While there, however, an inspector noticed the restaurant had no hot water. Three days later, the hot water heater still hadn’t been fixed. So the restaurant was shut down for a day and a half.
“We were forced to close at like 4 o’clock,” said David Wang, a part-time manager whose family owns New China Buffet. “We still had lots of food out” that had to be thrown away.
After the hot water was restored, the restaurant received a passing score of 93 on Nov. 2, records show.
Roach infestations led to suspension notices for two restaurants in downtown Newport last year.
It happened in August for the Green Derby restaurant at 846 York St. and in December for Newport Pizza Co. at 601 Monmouth St.
“Caller said this place is infested with roaches and mice in the kitchen,” said a Dec. 8 complaint that led to a five-day permit suspension at Newport Pizza. Inspectors documented “live activity of roaches in different life stages” on Dec. 11 but declared the restaurant free of pests when the permit was re-instated Dec. 13. Owner Mike Westrich has not responded to WCPO’s request for comments.
The Green Derby suffered its second permit suspension in as many years on Aug. 28, when inspectors found a “dead rodent underneath the dish washing machine” and “infestations of roaches along wall and floor of dishware storage.” Records state the restaurant’s pest-control contractor killed “thousands of roaches” by Aug. 31 but was still five days from bringing the “infestation under control.” The permit was re-instated after an inspector found no pest activity on Sept. 7.
Owner Michael Brauninger said the restaurant is a tenant in three old buildings, which means he doesn't control most of the space that surrounds him. So, he spent much of the last two years sealing off the space from the inside, tuck-pointing brick walls, adding baseboards, stucco and other barriers to keep pests outside.
Green Derby's inspection problems "are 100 percent behind us," Brauninger said. "After the years of neglect before we bought it, it took longer to get everything up to current standards than we would have hoped obviously."
Moving on to Kenton County
Two retail stores in Covington were closed after inspectors found bad food for sale at Hilltop Food Mart Market on Benton Road and Economy Meat Market at 420 Madison Ave.
Hilltop, a convenience store serving the City Heights neighborhood, was ordered to close Sept. 12 because of a re-occurring rodent problem. An inspector found two food items past their expiration date and “a bag of chips and a candy bar” that were “adulterated by rodent activity.” By Sept. 20, the mice were gone but an inspector found holes in the roof soffits that could allow pests to re-enter. Two days later, the soffits were fixed and the store was cleared to re-open. Store owners did not respond to WCPO’s attempts to reach them.
The inspection records at Economy Meat Market include more than a dozen photographs of expired or spoiled food, including rotten spinach and cabbage and moldy bread, strawberries and broccoli. Inspectors ordered 30 pounds of food to be discarded and issued a notice of intent to suspend the company’s food license on Oct. 2.
That led to an Oct. 19 conference in which owner Charlotte Rayne said she was doing everything in her power to make sure violations were corrected and not repeated. But on Nov. 1, an inspector found seven more expired food items along with rotten and moldy fruits and vegetables. Still more rotting food was found Nov. 6, including grapes that were quarantined five days earlier. Instead of throwing them out, an inspector wrote that the store picked through the grapes and repacked them into Styrofoam containers for re-sale. There was no rotting fruit when WCPO visited the store March 7. Rayne declined to comment for this story.
An anonymous complaint about mice triggered an inspection at Reality Tuesday Café in Park Hills on Dec. 13. The inspector didn’t find any evidence of mice but found enough other problems that he ordered the café closed. A refrigerated display case storing cheese cake wasn’t the correct temperature, for example, and the front hand sink drain was disconnected and seen draining into a bucket.
When the inspector returned Dec. 14, all the problems had been corrected and Reality Tuesday got a perfect score. Owner Bill Gregg didn’t return WCPO’s messages seeking comment about the process.
And into the suburbs
Taqueria Arandas in Florence is the only one of the 15 suspended restaurants to have closed permanently. But former owner Juan Delgado told WCPO the closure had nothing to do with the Sept. 12 health inspection that resulted in a suspension of the restaurant’s permit to operate due to a “rodent infestation.”
Delgado said the problem with rodents began when the hotel where the restaurant was located began undergoing a major renovation. The construction work stirred things up, he said, creating a problem for the restaurant while he was out of town.
Delgado said he spent money to tear down a wall in the restaurant, replace the drywall and patch up everything to help eliminate the entry points for the rodents.
The restaurant got a score of 100 during a follow-up inspection on Sept. 15 and was allowed to reopen. But the hotel where Taqueria Arandas was located changed ownership, and the new owners decided they didn’t want a restaurant, Delgado said.
“I lost a lot of money,” he said. “I lost everything I put in that restaurant because I had to get out.”
He is working to open a new restaurant that he plans to call Amigos Mexican Restaurant at a different location, he said.
El Rancho Grande in Cold Spring had its permit suspended in 2017, too.
Pedro Lopez, a manager there, said the suspension was related to a paperwork error that didn’t have anything to do with inspections of the restaurant.
“We closed, only probably 30 minutes because we forgot to pay the license,” Lopez said.
After reviewing the records for El Rancho Grande, Talley had a different interpretation.
A health department inspector found a couple of critical violations during a regular inspection on April 10 -- food stored at improper temperatures and uncovered employee drinks near ready-to-eat food in the kitchen -- and gave the restaurant seven days to correct them.
During a follow-up inspection on April 17, the inspector found that food still was being stored at potentially unsafe temperatures.
At that point, the health department issued an “intent to suspend" notice and gave the restaurant management the forms to request a conference to discuss the problems.
But El Rancho Grande failed to turn in the request for a conference, resulting in a suspension of its permit to operate.
When the inspector returned on April 28, the violations had been corrected. The restaurant got a perfect score and applied to have its permit reinstated that day, according to health department records.
A complaint triggered a May 31 inspection at the Waffle House on Litton Lane in Hebron. A man called that day to say he had seen roaches from time to time during visits to the restaurant. But he called because he took his “small son” there for a meal and found “a roach in his egg.”
The inspector noted a number of problems and suspended the restaurant’s food service permit after observing “heavy adult and juvenile roach activity in area between bar counter and dish washing station.” The restaurant got a perfect score of 100 during a follow-up inspection on June 2.
“All issues were corrected and (the) health department lifted the order less than two days after the initial closure,” said Pat Warner, director of public relations for the Atlanta-based chain. “Delivering a quality and safe experience is a responsibility we take very seriously, and we are working hard to build back the trust with our customers.”