CINCINNATI — When it comes to restaurant inspections, higher prices on the menu don't necessarily translate into better scores for the kitchen.
WCPO found a mix of restaurant styles and price points with large numbers of inspection violations in its latest installment of Dirty Dining.
One result of this review is that some iconic local restaurants appeared in WCPO's Top 10 list for the first time, such as Oriental Wok in Hyde Park, Jean-Robert’s Table downtown, Boudinot LaRosa's in Westwood and The Precinct, Jeff Ruby's original Cincinnati steakhouse.
Another important outcome is that we learned about some anomalies in the Cincinnati Health Department’s online inspections data. It turns out users don’t always see a complete list of violations when they search the city’s online database.
Scraping the data
This is the first time WCPO used a web scraper – a software program that pulls records from the web sites of local health departments – to compile its list of restaurant violations.
In past years, we asked local health departments to provide their own lists of all violations for a full calendar year then combined those violations into a single searchable database. The goal of the web scraper is to make regional information about restaurant violations available on a more timely basis.
The database below represents all violations displayed on public web sites in late July and early August by the city of Cincinnati and three Ohio counties: Hamilton, Warren and Clermont. WCPO filtered the data to show only those violations dated Jan. 1 to June 30 of this year.
The Precinct challenged the accuracy of the city’s records. So WCPO spent about a month exploring its concerns by comparing the city’s paper records to its online data and seeking new batches of data, pulled in different ways from the city’s digital files.
At the end of this story, you’ll find a database that lets you compare how violation counts vary based on three different sources of city-maintained records.
But here’s something new we learned about the city’s digital files: They don’t always tell the whole story. That’s because the city’s food inspections search engine only serves up only extracts of its digital files – not the complete digital record. And those excerpts can change depending on when you seek the data.
The city is trying to offer the most relevant information at the time web surfers are seeking it, said Raj Chundur, administrator of the city’s data center, known as CAGIS.
So, while the city documents every interaction between restaurants and inspectors, its searchable database only shows active violations on the most recent inspection date. That means users don’t have to worry about problems corrected months ago. But it also means a restaurant cited in January for a violation that’s not repeated in June could appear in an August web search to have no January violations.
Jean-Robert’s Table is a case in point. It had more than a dozen violations in January and June that did not show up in data scraped by WCPO in August. Similarly, WCPO’s web scraper found more violations online in early August than the violation counts documented in paper records for at least two West Side restaurants: Boudinot LaRosa’s and J&J Restaurant at 6159 Glenway Avenue.
Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel didn't contest the city inspector's findings at his restaurant. But he said sometimes inspections happen when the kitchen is hectic and employees don't have time to explain their procedures.
"Everything is fixable," he said. "All of us in the kitchen -- we know what's right and what's wrong. Most of the things are fixable right there when they are there. It's not like we are putting any customer in danger."
Jean-Robert's Table had no violations in its most recent inspection Sept. 13, the city's online records show.
For those who want to dig deeper, we provide enough detail to make your eyes bleed at the end of this story – along with two additional databases that let you search inspection records in other formats. For now, you should just know that the city never intended for its data to be used to compare local restaurants by violation counts.
Partnering and pressuring
“I would have no problem eating at any of these restaurants seven days a week,” said Dr. O’dell Owens, Cincinnati’s former interim health commissioner.
Owens was talking about Oriental Wok, LaRosa’s and The Precinct, where the WCPO web scraper found high violation counts in early August.
“It’s not the number” of violations that matter in restaurant inspections, Owens explained. “It’s more the type.”
Owens said repeat violations and those that impact food safety are the issues that worry him most.
“My philosophy is that we’re partners in how to make things safe and to give the people of Cincinnati a great dining experience,” Owens said during an interview conducted before he left the health department for a different job. “My goal isn’t to shut you down. My goal is to help you not get to that point.”
Restaurant operators stress that having violations doesn't mean a place isn't safe or that the staff isn't working hard to deliver a quality dining experience.
"These violations are worded in such a way that it sounds very scary," said Susanna Wong, the operator of Oriental Wok in Hyde Park. "But a restaurant is a very active, dynamic environment. If a restaurant's open, it's going to have violations."
Wong and other restaurant managers told WCPO that they view inspectors with local health departments as partners who work alongside the eateries to make them better.
"It's a good thing when the inspector is here," said Ricky Yang, a manager at Hibachi Grill & Buffet in Beechmont. "Sometimes the employees, they need pressure."
Budget cuts, inspector bias?
Two popular West-Side restaurants felt plenty of pressure in April, when separate inspections led to dozens of violations for LaRosa’s flagship restaurant on Boudinot Avenue and J&J Restaurant, a popular Westwood eatery known for its all-day breakfasts and oversized double-decker sandwiches.
The 37 LaRosa’s infractions in our database on April 18 represented more than three times its total violation count since 2014. J & J Restaurant had 67 violations on April 18, 19 percent more than its 2015 total.
“Our health inspection record at our Western Hills pizzeria has been historically good,” LaRosa’s said in a prepared statement. “We did, however, experience an unusual number of infractions on the Spring 2016 inspection. Most were related to pot and pan cleaning or storage. Our restaurant management team acted immediately to correct each item, and we were cleared in the follow up inspection.”
Boudinot LaRosa's had one violation that was corrected on site in its most recent inspection Sept. 13.
J & J Manager John Vasiliou said an Aug. 23 inspection went much better for the family-owned restaurant.
“Everything’s right,” he said.
Cincinnati’s online records for J & J now shows 21 violations on Aug. 23 – all of them corrected on site – and none for April 18. Paper records tell a different story.
Gail Long-Cook, supervising sanitarian for the Cincinnati Health Department, said an inspector who visited both restaurants on April 18 was documenting digital violations incorrectly, a problem that was corrected with in-house training. Long-Cook estimated the “true count” of violations for J & J at 45, while LaRosa’s had 27 infractions on April 18.
Beyond those discrepancies, the Precinct’s parent company maintains that budget cuts are making health inspectors more prone to mistakes.
“Over the past six months, there has been inaccurate reporting of inspections by the Cincinnati Health Department,” said Britney Ruby Miller, director of operations for Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment. “In speaking with their leadership team, we understand and share their concerns of recent budget cuts and staff shortages. Their team is correcting the report and making these updates to its website.”
The incorrect data includes violations that were corrected by the restaurant within 24 hours but not reflected in the online record, Ruby Miller said.
WCPO reviewed paper records for The Precinct. They matched the number of violations in our web scraper.
Owens also investigated whether inspector bias was a factor in the Precinct’s higher-than-normal violation count.
“The Precinct said that our people made inappropriate comments about ‘Ruby has money to buy equipment.’ They thought that wasn’t appropriate,” Owens said. “So, I’m investigating to see if it’s true or not – who said it and why."
Long-Cook said the city was unable to verify the complaint. Owens said he didn't think inspector bias was a problem for his former department.
“There’s nothing in it for that inspector to have a bias against any restaurant,” he said. “If I knew that, they wouldn’t be an inspector. We go in as a servant of the people.”
Open equals safe?
The inspection results analyzed by WCPO did not come as a surprise to any of the restaurant managers and operators who agreed to be interviewed.
E + O Kitchen's former general manager Ian Day said he started consulting with the restaurant in March after its owners realized they had problems. Day quickly was hired full-time to reorganize things, but has since left for another job in the industry. New GM Kenny Huff said the restaurant got "a much better review" in an Oct. 29 inspection, but those records haven't been posted online yet.
"We're making a huge effort to make things better," Huff said.
The new management team at E + O was about six weeks old when Day spoke to WCPO, and he said he expected better results during the restaurant's next inspection.
"We do look forward to our next visit from the health department," he said. "I'm sure it's not going to be 100 percent. But I'm sure it's going to be a lot, lot better."
Neither E + O Kitchen nor The Precinct has been inspected since June 30, so the violations in WCPO's database remains the most current data available for the both establishments.
Restaurant owners never know exactly when officials from the health department will show up, but inspections typically occur every six months or so at Oriental Wok, said Guy Burgess, the restaurant's executive chef.
Some violations can be the result of a particularly hectic day or just bad timing, he said.
"What I'm most concerned with are holding temperatures," Burgess said. "And we've never had an issue with holding temperatures."
And violations that sound terrible on the inspection reports, such as no hand soap available at hand washing sinks, are actually not, Wong said.
"Sometimes they just don't see it," she said. "The soap dispenser was moved off to the side a little bit. We moved it back."
Even those items that are fixed immediately get written down, she said.
"Eating out is part of the culture of America, and it's wonderful. It's part of everybody's lifestyle," Wong said. "I think in cooperation with the health department, any restaurant that is still open, it's safe."
Oriental Wok had five violations, all of them corrected on site, in its last inspection Sept. 9.
'Sometimes things happen'
Getting all the details exactly right can be especially difficult at a buffet restaurant, as WCPO has reported previously.
Hibachi Grill & Buffet bills itself as "the largest and most elegant Chinese, Japanese and American Cuisine Restaurant" on its Facebook page.
Preparing so many different dishes every day requires a lot of work, Yang said.
"For the buffet, there's a lot of things going on," he said. "It's not like making burgers. There's a lot of things we have to prepare."
Yang said he and other managers at Hibachi Grill try to keep an eye on all the details at the restaurant and ensure that employees are following all the rules.
"But sometimes employees put an uncovered drink down. That's a critical," he said. "We talk to them all the time, but sometimes things happen like that."
And keeping fresh, hot food on the buffet requires constant monitoring, Yang said.
"People see ugly food, they don't want to eat it," he said. "Maybe around 2 or 3 when it slows down, the food out there is getting ugly and the food will maybe cool down a little bit. When it looks bad, we have to throw it in the garbage and get a new one out."
Whether it’s a buffet or a more upscale restaurant such as Oriental Wok, the people in charge agree that keeping a food establishment running is no easy task.
"We try our best to put fresh food out and keep the things going out clean for the people," Yang said. "But sometimes things happen."
Hibachi Grill got some positive feedback when a Hamilton County inspector last visited Aug. 24.
"All violations have been corrected," wrote the inspector. "Facility did a good job of maintaining compliance."
About the data
There are some significant differences between WCPO’s mid-year update and the Dirty Dining reports of prior years. For example:
The mid-year update does not include Northern Kentucky violations. Because of the way Kentucky displays its violations online, WCPO was unable to verify that its web-scraping tool would retrieve all violations cited from Jan. 1 to June 30. So, Kentucky violations were excluded from the analysis.
Past Dirty Dining reports have ranked restaurants on both the number and severity of violations. This report is strictly based on the violation count. It doesn’t factor in how serious the violations are.
WCPO did not separate non-critical violations from the critical infractions that are most likely to cause illness. That’s because Cincinnati does not designate violations as critical in its online portal. That’s a classification WCPO has added in the past, based on our own analysis, which takes time. The purpose of this mid-year review is to publish the data more frequently than once a year.
Because the analysis includes only six months of data, a single bad inspection can catapult a restaurant into the top 10. That was the case for Boudinot LaRosa’s, which received 37 of its 39 violations on April 18. It could have also been a factor for The Precinct, where 25 of its 37 violations were documented on Jan. 27.
In an attempt to verify the accuracy of the data in our web scraper, WCPO prepared alternate databases with two other batches of city-maintained digital records. Those data sources are described here with the goal of helping readers interpret the records displayed.
To help readers understand the information in our two Dirty Dining charts, WCPO provides the following methodology information that describes the data sources reviewed for this story.
The popularity of our annual Dirty Dining database prompted WCPO to look for ways to provide this information on a more regular basis. So, WCPO Digital Intern Andrew Briz wrote a software program to scrape records from health department web sites. Counties that use HealthSpace, a state-approved IT vendor, proved easiest to scrape. In fact, we quickly deployed the scraper in July to collect health records on commercial swimming pools.
Scraping the city’s data proved more difficult. That’s partly because the city was the first to make inspection records available on the web. When you scrape its site, you get records dating back to 2009. In addition, city records can change over time. That’s because its searchable database calls up records from the date of last inspection. Those dates change with every new inspection. In addition, past violations can be marked as “abated,” which WCPO has never counted in past Dirty Dining reports. In past years, the number of city violations in our database has roughly matched the number of total violations city officials said they wrote each year. Plus, no city-regulated restaurant has ever challenged the accuracy of the records contained in Dirty Dining. At least, not until a Jeff Ruby restaurant ranked in the top 10.
The Precinct ranks eighth in WCPO’s database of web-scraped records, with 37 violations. When we contacted the restaurant in August, it challenged the accuracy of the Health Department’s data. Britney Ruby Miller, director of operations for Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, also said the WCPO analysis “doesn’t accurately represent how the Health Department inspects restaurants or reports them.” WCPO compared the web-scraped records to paper files at the Cincinnati Health Department. The number of violations matched. WCPO used two additional data sources to compare web-scraped records to digital files maintained by the city. Those methods are described below.
WCPO asked the city to provide all violations for the first half of 2016 in the same way it provided restaurant violations in four prior installments of Dirty Dining. That file includes a different mix of “Top 10” violators, but it is still basically an excerpt of digital files maintained by the city, same as the WCPO web scraper.
The city keeps a record of all interactions between health inspectors and food-service providers. Those records are available for download on the city’s open data site. This is the only place where users can find past violations that have since been corrected and are no longer active violations that would show up on city extracts. But the data was never intended to provide a running tally of restaurant violations. So, counting each record in this file could result in double- or triple-counting violations. WCPO opted not to use the data for that reason.
When Hamilton County inspectors write up a local restaurant, the citation is added to a vendor-managed database of all violations. Once there, it can only be modified to correct mistakes, which rarely happens, said Greg Kesterman, assistant health commissioner for Hamilton County. “Every record is put up online,” he said. “It remains online from the date of the record.” The county’s data vendor is HealthSpace, which provides similar services to Clermont, Warren and 35 other health departments under a contract with the Ohio Department of Health.
NORTHERN KENTUCKY DATA
The Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department makes inspection records available by running a query on a roughly quarterly basis, then posting the results of that query online. It does not make its full data file available to the public. In the past, WCPO incorporated Kentucky records into the Dirty Dining database by obtaining four separate queries from the department, then merging those files and eliminating duplicates. It’s not a process that could be accomplished with a web scraper.
Andrew Briz wrote the software for WCPO's web scraper. Brian Niesz organized the data and built all Tableau visualizations for this story.