SHARONVILLE, Ohio -- Moments after blistering his hand on a hot, metal bowl and realizing he was out of burn spray, Chef James Akers was quick to admit that owning and operating a food truck can be a tough way to make a living.
“In a food truck, you’re responsible for everything,” said Akers, who launched Pretzelfuls with his wife in 2016. “You’re the cook. You’re the chef. You’re the general manager. Customer service, networking, media -- you do it all.”
Then there are the health inspectors. Food trucks, with their tight quarters, tiny kitchens and limited staffs, must follow the same health codes that big, fancy restaurants do.
“You’re in such a confined space so things happen,” Akers said. “And when you’re super swamped busy, which has happened when a health inspector walks on your truck, it is what it is. There’s no hiding it.”
Despite those challenges, food trucks fared well in WCPO’s annual examination of food-safety violations recorded by health inspectors across the Tri-State. This marks the fifth year WCPO has done the report but the first time we have looked at the results for food trucks specifically.
Pretzelfuls received 14 violations from the Northern Kentucky Health Department in 2017, more than any other food truck operator in the 33,000 records WCPO examined. But that’s far lower than the businesses with the highest number of violations last year.
In fact, 19 restaurants and food businesses received more than 50 violations each. Four of the region's top ten violators were grocery stores, which racked up four times the violations of food trucks on average in 2017.
“These are true, mobile commercial kitchens, so essentially they’re held to the same standard as brick-and-mortar locations,” said Ted Talley, the Northern Kentucky Health Department’s environmental health manager. “I think if there’s any type of benefit that they have, it’s just a smaller space to maintain.”
That much was clear when Akers allowed a WCPO camera inside his cramped space as he served the lunch crowd in the parking lot of Jacobs Engineering Group at 1880 Waycross Road.
Akers is part of a growing local industry. Hamilton County licensed 287 mobile food units in 2017, up from 111 in 2013. Inspectors check these units for adequate refrigeration and hot-water sources, proper food-handling techniques and menus that are accurate and honestly presented.
That’s a lot of rules for a cupboard-sized kitchen that barely fits more than two humans at once. Akers said his truck has been inspected far more frequently than the restaurants where he has worked. But that’s not always the case.
Ohio law only requires health departments to inspect food trucks once a year before they open for the season, said Greg Kesterman, Hamilton County Public Health’s assistant health commissioner. Inspectors can visit them while they’re out at events, too, but that doesn’t happen on a regular schedule, he said.
“The very first time that a food truck comes to us for our inspection might be the last time in our jurisdiction,” Kesterman said. “Most restaurants get between two and four inspections.”
And restaurants that have problems the first time an inspector visits tend to get inspected more often, which can boost their violation counts, Kesterman said.
That’s what happened with some of the region’s top food-safety violators in 2017, including Thierno Mouhamadou Samassa, a restaurant that catered to West African immigrants in in Lockland. Hamilton County records show inspectors closed the restaurant in September due to a “repeat critical roach violation.” It re-opened after passing inspection with no violations Oct. 4, but neighbors said it closed again in November and hasn’t reopened since. The door was locked with no activity inside when WCPO visited the restaurant March 20. We’ve been unable to locate the restaurant’s owners.
Clean up on aisle five
Frequent inspections also drove up the violation counts at four local grocery stores that ranked in the region’s top ten in total violations. All four received at least six visits by inspectors in 2017. International Market in Lockland saw 15 visits, including seven in the month of July alone. Hamilton County inspectors documented “rodent droppings in many areas of the store” on July 13, leading to frequent inspections and the store’s voluntary one-day closure on July 18.
“When it happened I wasn’t here because I was outside the country,” said the store’s owner Adama Ba. “When I left they did not do what they were supposed to do. That’s why the problem happened. When I came back I cleaned everything.”
Hamilton County inspectors documented at least one violation in all but one of International Market’s last 18 visits dating back to December 2016, including food packages “accessed by rodents” in July and “roach activity around the water heater” two months ago.
Ba is planning to move his store down the street to a building he purchased last February at the corner of South Wayne and West Wyoming avenues. He’s renovating the new space now and hopes to open the new store in the next several weeks.
Another independent grocery store is bracing for a second straight year of intervention by Springdale health inspectors.
Delicias Supermarket at 316 Northland Boulevard received 75 violations in 2017, more than 60 of them in four visits between Feb. 6 and March 13 of last year. The Hispanic grocery store owned by La Union LLC declined to comment, citing advice from its attorneys.
Springdale Health Commissioner Matt Clayton said the store improved throughout 2017. But on April 3 inspectors documented 17 violations in the Northland Boulevard store. Six of the violations were critical in nature, including beef and chicken held at improper temperatures and gnats in the kitchen.
“The Springdale Health Department favors food safety education and on-site training at food facilities,” said Springdale Health Commissioner Matt Clayton in an email to WCPO. “Unfortunately, some facility operators simply fail to follow through with their responsibilities despite our best efforts.”
Clayton said the department would develop a “risk control plan” for the store, aimed at bringing it back into compliance. It the plan is not followed, state law allows the Springdale Board of Health to suspend or revoke the store’s food-service license.
A Camp Washington convenience store called Adam’s Quick Stop on Colerain Avenue had 70 violations over a series of inspections in 2017, including several related to the temperature of gyro meat sold there.
Manager Sue Itawi said the store has “fixed everything they’re talking about.” She said the problems with the health department started when the inspector directed her husband to throw away nearly $200 worth of meat, and he refused.
“He told her to leave. I know he was wrong, but she was wrong, too,” Itawi said. “We never have people that complain or die or whatever. She used to eat it, too. I used to make it for her.”
The city’s online data portal doesn’t show records for any new inspections conducted at Adam’s Quick Stop this year. But Itawi noted that the business renewed its license a few weeks ago, which she assumes would not have been allowed if there were any lingering concerns.
Supermarket giant Kroger Co. had two stores among the 10 food businesses with the highest number of violations.
The Cincinnati Health Department cited its Spring Grove Village store on Kenard Avenue for improperly dated deli meat and plumbing problems that went unfixed for weeks among its 60 violations last year.
An inspector recorded 59 violations at the Oakley Kroger on Marburg Avenue in 2017, including a soiled iced tea nozzle in the customer self-serve area and an “unclean” floor in a walk-in freezer.
Company spokesperson Erin Rolfes responded to WCPO’s questions about the violations with an emailed statement that said: “Food safety is important to Kroger. We acted quickly last year to correct these issues at the two locations.”
The big picture
WCPO’s analysis of 2017 inspection data shows the average local grocery store received 9.4 violations, compared to 1.9 violations for food trucks and 6.6 for all food-service locations.
So, why would a grocery store have more violations? One answer is volume. The average McDonald’s restaurant is 4,000 square feet, which means you can fit 30 of them in a Kroger Marketplace store. Beyond that, a full-service grocery store has a broad range of food offerings, from fully cooked meals to deli meats, bakery, produce and dairy products.
“These facilities are often open 24 hours a day and may serve a high number of guests compared to traditional food service operations or retail food establishments,” wrote Springdale’s Health Commissioner Matt Clayton.
Clifton Market General Manager Keith Brock agrees that grocery stores are more complicated.
"There's a lot to walk and talk and make sure that people understand," said Brock, whose store had 47 violations in 2017 but only one that hadn't been corrected in by its last inspection March 6. "You have your produce, your food service area, which is like a restaurant. You've got your meat department. And then if you have sushi you have a total different concept that has to be handled there. Not counting dairy. So, inside your realm you might have eight to 10 different aspects you have to watch out for."
City inspectors cited Clifton Market last May for having a baby inside its sushi area and using a non-commercial rice cooker to prepare its products. Brock ultimately replaced his contractor with store employees so he knows its sushi is prepared correctly.
"Everything I've asked them to do, they've done," said Jennifer Rouse, an environmental specialist with the city who regularly inspects Clifton Market. "We're working together. It's been a great partnership."
Some business owners have seen their violation counts increase when they are focused on expansion and new locations.
That’s what happened at the popular Pho Lang Thang in Over-the-Rhine, said Duy Nguyen, the restaurant’s operating partner.
“The first five years, I was there a lot,” he said. “And since then, I’ve been kind of jumping between three businesses. It has been a bit of a growing game for us, not being able to be on site and take care of it the way an owner should.”
Nguyen chalked up last year’s violations to “silly bad habits that some of the employees have.”
“Washing hands, misplacement of things, not cleaning their station well enough or often,” he said. “Our management wasn’t up to par.”
Nguyen said he got rid of a manager who wasn’t correcting the problems and got ServSafe training for more team leaders and anyone in a management role.
“I think we’ve got it under control at this point,” he said.
The time of day that the inspector visits has had an impact too, he said.
While Pho Lang Thang’s former inspector tended to visit before the lunch rush, the current inspector usually visits right when the Findlay Market restaurant is most busy.
“Which is also when it happens to be the biggest mess as well,” Nguyen said. “If you show up at our restaurant at 11 o’clock, right before we open, it’s sparkling. By 12:30, it’s a hot mess.”
That comes with the territory for any restaurant that is rushing to serve a Downtown lunch crowd, he said.
“The big thing for us is getting food out quick. Speed, speed, speed,” he said. “If food takes more than 10 or 15 minutes to come out, you’re not going to make it.”
In that respect, Nguyen’s brick-and-mortar restaurant has a lot in common with Akers’ Pretzelfuls food truck when it gets busy.
“You just have to be conscious every second you’re on the truck,” Akers said. “If I lay a spoon down on the counter, that’s a health code violation. And, well, guess what? I don’t have anyplace else to put it so I’ll take the point off. But I know it’s going to be clean when I slow down.”
Food businesses of any kind have some simple rules to keep in mind, he said.
“If your common goal is taking care of the guest and making sure everything is safe,” Akers said, “you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”
Hamilton County Public Health Assistant Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman offers these tips for the public when they’re getting food at a restaurant or a food truck:
• With a food truck, people are often able to see inside and watch how employees handle the food. “If you ever see a violation or something that makes you think twice, it’s really important for you A: not to eat there and B: let the health department know.”
• One common violation is when a food truck employee handles money and then doesn’t wash their hands before making the food. “Hand washing is critical for preventing illness,” he said. “When someone is handling money, they’re handling germs.”
• When Kesterman eats at a food truck, he also looks to make sure there isn’t any milk or cheese left on the counter and that employees are representing themselves cleanly. If you see someone wearing an apron that is covered in food, he said, that probably means that person is wiping their hands on their apron instead of washing them properly.
• Don’t be shy about walking away. Kesterman did that at a restaurant once, he said. “Someone was handling their nose ring and then went back to making my food,” he said. “I pointed out their error and then left.”
How we did it
WCPO obtained data on food-safety violations from three public agencies that maintain digital records for local health jurisdictions in in eight local counties and three cities.
The sources are the city of Cincinnati’s “open data” portal, the Northern Kentucky Independent Health District and the Ohio Department of Health, which contracts with a company called HealthSpace USA to maintain digital records all over Ohio.
The local counties in WCPO’s database are Hamilton, Warren, Clermont and Highland in Ohio and Boone, Kenton, Campbell and Grant in Kentucky. The cities are Cincinnati, Springdale and Middletown.
This year’s database contains 33,000 health code violations at 5,024 food-service locations, including restaurants, food trucks, hotels, grocery and convenience stores and dining facilities inside schools and local companies. These locations are ranked on the number of violations cited by local jurisdictions in the 2017 calendar year. Additional information on any food-service location can be found by searching online records at each local health department:
Dan Monk covers business news for WCPO. To read more stories by Dan, go to www.wcpo.com/monk. To reach him, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DanMonk9.
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 email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.