Mitchell's Fish Market shut down during dinner rush after health violations discovered

NEWPORT, Ky. -- An anonymous complaint to the Northern Kentucky Health Department led to the immediate closure of Mitchell's Fish Market at Newport on the Levee in the middle of Friday dinner service.

Fort Thomas Matters reported the high-end seafood restaurant remained closed Saturday and Sunday before passing a subsequent inspection and reopening Monday. 

The complaint, which was confirmed by the health department, stated that the restaurant had been without hot water since Wednesday, November 29. The inspector, who was scheduled to visit Mitchell's on December 4, visited early to investigate the complaint and found seven critical violations that yielded a food safety score of 54. 

Under Kentucky law, any food safety score under 60 merits an immediate suspension of the food service permit.

But the closure didn't happen that night until the Campbell County Attorney's Office intervened. According to Campbell County Attorney Steve Franzen, the general manager refused to comply with the health department's order to close after revoking their food service permit. 

Franzen said the general manager's refusal to close was a first in his time as county attorney and, had the manager not eventually complied with the closure, he could have been charged and arrested. Newport Police were standing by. 

"When the inspector's order to close was refused, he posted a notice on the front doors stating that Mitchell's was to close and why. When he came back to the restaurant he found that menus were taped up over his notice to obscure the view of that report to the public," Franzen said. "They were in clear violation, and the law was pretty clear. I can understand the pressure to stay open on a weekend, but the public needed to be protected in this instance. They had to be shut down."

After closing at around 7:30 p.m on Friday amid a scene that employees of the restaurant described as "chaotic," the doors were locked and employees cleaned the kitchen area.

A sign posted at 9 p.m. read, "Unfortunately, Mitchell's is temporarily CLOSED due to Hot Water Boiler issues. We apologize for the inconvenience and look forward to serving you soon."

Dr. Lynne Saddler, district director of health, agreed with Franzen's that the closure was about protecting the public. 

"At NKY Health, our mission is to prevent disease, promote wellness and protect against health threats," she said. "One of the many ways that we do this is by working to reduce the risk of food-borne illnesses and ensuring that local restaurants operate within the guidelines of Kentucky's food code. When local food-service establishments are not complying with food guidelines, they are putting public health at risk."

From the inspection report, dated December 1, seven critical violations were noted:

1) Open brick of cream cheese lacking date mark label & expired manufacture use-by date -- voluntarily discarded. Pre-made goat cheese balls lacking date mark label -- voluntarily discarded. Crab meat in reach-in unit with date mark label exceeding 7 days -- corrected. 

2) Tuna salad, sliced american cheese, sour cream, shredded cheddar, heavy cream on top rail of broiler station observed at 50 degrees F - quarantined. Raw salmon, shrimp, cream, cream cheese, white cheddar in bottom of broiler station observed at 64 degree F - quarantined. Smoked onion butter, parsley butter, garlic butter stored at room temperature - quarantined. 

3) Observed employee handle ready-to-eat food (slaw & tacos) with bare hands. Handsink at bar area obstructed with drink dump strainer. 

4) Critical violations observed, lack of key critical food safety concepts among food handling employees, local requirement for compliance with Certified Food Manager (substitute certification). 

5) In use utensils on cook line not wash, rinse, sanitized every 4 hrs as required. High temp dish machine in use, not sanitizing dishwaters - no hot water available. Slicer for produce & cheese observed heavily soiled with food residues. 

6) No hot water available at facility - mgmt has been working with maintenance all week on boiler parts (hot water Off/On/Off during week)

7) Multiple "Hot Shot" pest strips observed throughout facility - advised. Sanitizer buckets observed stored on food prep counters/surfaces. 

Before this inspection, Mitchell's Fish Market at Newport on the Levee scored a food safety score of 81 on May 9 of this year. The follow-up inspection yielded a perfect 100. 

Local management declined to make a statement and directed comment to the corporate entity, Landry's Inc., who acquired Mitchell's Fish Market in 2014. 

“To ensure food safety, we ceased operations after learning that parts were unavailable for our rooftop water heater," CEO Howard Cole said in a statement. "The Newport Health Department gave us clearance to reopen upon the repair of our water heater for lunch on Monday, December 4. We appreciate the patience of our customers and employees as we worked to get this issue resolved.”

Landry's Inc. also owns Morton's Steakhouse, McCormick & Schmick's, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Chart House. 

Fort Thomas Matters has learned that the general manager in charge that night no longer works at Mitchell's Fish Market. 

Fort Thomas Matters is a news partner of WCPO.

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