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Dirty Dining 2020: How corporate kitchens compare to restaurants in safety, cleanliness

Company cafeteria closed by mice droppings
Posted: 5:00 AM, Mar 10, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-10 18:40:48-04

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, KY — It’s a perk that most American workers do not enjoy: An on-site cafeteria where the company feeds you breakfast, lunch or dinner.

But workers at Prysmian Group's North American headquarters in Highland Heights didn’t feel so lucky last March when a Northern Kentucky health inspector shut down its corporate kitchen for a mouse problem.

“Permit suspended due to the rodent droppings,” wrote Sanitarian Sonia Shrestha. “Observed mice droppings throughout the kitchen floor, underneath hot/cold warmer, in gravy mix packets, silverwares stored plastic box.”

Mice droppings were documented by a Northern Kentucky health inspector at Prysmian Group on March 18, 2019

In an email statement, Prysmian spokesman Charlie Schicht said the company’s cafeteria operator, Canteen Service Company, resolved the issue quickly. The kitchen passed its most recent inspection in September, he added.

“The facility was closed immediately so a thorough cleaning and other remediation activities could be completed,” Schicht wrote. Health department “staff returned to the facility the next day and again inspected, determining proper corrective steps had been taken and approved the cafeteria to reopen.”

The cafeteria is one of 28 licensed food-service facilities that closed in 2019 after problems were cited by health inspectors from Cincinnati, Hamilton County or Northern Kentucky. Eleven of the closures were caused by pest problems, including rodents and roaches. Other closures stemmed from leaky roofs and bad plumbing, employee mistakes and paperwork problems.

WCPO analyzes food-safety violations annually on a regional basis for its Dirty Dining report. This is the first time since WCPO started Dirty Dining in 2013 that health inspectors closed an employee dining facility.

The Italian company Prysmian Group acquired General Cable Corp. in 2018. Its North American headquarters remains at General Cable's former HQ near Northern Kentucky University.

Health inspectors generally try not to close food-service facilities unless there is a risk to public health. But WCPO's list of closures demonstrates how health departments vary on their standards for closure. For example, Northern Kentucky, which rates restaurants on a 100-point scoring system, closed two restaurants in 2019 for scoring below 60. Cincinnati closed a restaurant, a food truck and a grocery store over discrepancies with their license. Hamilton County was more likely than the other departments to describe closures as voluntary. Assistant Hamilton County Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman told WCPO last year that he will order any facility to close immediately if inspectors find a live rodent inside.

The I-Team created a searchable database of nearly 60,000 food-safety violations from seven local health departments: Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Middletown, Springdale and Hamilton, Warren and Clermont counties in Ohio. The data includes violations from 8,721 food-license holders. The list includes every restaurant that had at least one violation in the calendar year plus stadium concession stands, grocery and convenience stores and corporate cafeterias like the Prysmian kitchen near Northern Kentucky University.

“We’ve had a cafeteria since 1993 when fewer lunch dining options existed for our employees near our offices,” Schicht said.

Records from the Northern Kentucky Health Department show the Prysmian cafeteria had nine violations in two inspections last year. Prysmian is a manufacturing company, formerly known as General Cable Corp. Its cafeteria, at 4 Tesseneer Drive, had relatively minor violations apart from the mouse problem. Inspectors cited the kitchen for a hand-washing violation in September and failing to have a thermometer in a cold-storage facility in March. The Prysmian violation count is higher than the average of 6.9 violations for all food-license holders in our database but it's well below the average of 100 violations for the region’s most frequently cited restaurants.

The complete database for all food-service locations is at the end of this story. But first, we’ll take a closer look at locations where employees can dine at work, from cafeterias reserved for employees only to the public places – like casinos, colleges and hospitals – that offer meals to staff and visitors.

The I-Team identified 27 food-service license holders in local casinos, 49 in hospitals, 46 on college campuses and 69 in corporate settings.

What do we mean by corporate kitchen?

Corporate kitchens come in many stripes, according to research from the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group based in Alexandria, Virginia that conducts an annual survey on employee benefits. The 2019 survey said 95 percent of companies offer break rooms or kitchenettes where employees can bring their own meals. Another 78 percent offer free coffee. But only 13 percent have on-site cafeterias where employees can dine for free or with discounts.

St. Elizabeth Healthcare has one such facility in its Edgewood campus. Retail manager Dave Maher said the hospital tries to break even with its 100-employee food-service operation that serves about 2,100 customers daily. The cafeteria is open to patients and hospital visitors, but Maher said a majority of its users are employees. The kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. overnight.

Dave Maher is a retail manager in St. Elizabeth Healthcare's Edgewood cafeteria

“You can eat lunch here very affordably,” Maher said. “And you know timing is an issue for our employees. When you only have a half an hour (for lunch) it’s not easy to go somewhere, pick it up and bring it back.”

Brad McCullough said he spends about $2,000 a year in the St. E cafeteria, which he calls a “morale booster” for hospital employees.

“Our chef is awesome,” said McCullough, project manager on the hospital’s design and construction team. “It’s my understanding that the chef came from the Maisonette and he got tired of working weekends. So, he wound up here. Every once in a while, he’d serve these fantastic dishes that he would serve up there for probably three times the cost.”

Hospital spokesman Guy Karrick confirmed that Chef Chris Crowley “was indeed a chef at the Maisonette.” His LinkedIn bio indicates Crowley worked for the now-defunct French restaurant in various jobs through the 1990s.

“It’s fantastic food. I can’t get enough of it. I feel like it’s a crime to eat this good,” McCullough said.

'We have to be safe'

The Edgewood cafeteria had only four violations in 2019 and a perfect score of 100 in its last inspection on Dec. 12. Maher credits solid employee training and an in-house compliance department that conducts food-safety inspections “every so often” to make sure it’s clean and safe.

“We’re a hospital. We have to be safe,” Maher said. “So, it’s part of our daily routine. We train our people from the beginning the importance of food dating, temperatures. There are processes in place to make sure all that happens.”

Several factors contribute to lower violation counts in corporate kitchens, said John Sanders, supervising sanitarian for the Cincinnati Health Department. It regulates nearly 1,900 food-service establishments including dozens of company kitchens. He estimates there are more than 200 local companies offering some type of food service in-house, including vending machines and micro markets that are gaining in popularity. He doesn’t think the city has ever closed a corporate kitchen.

“Typically speaking, the corporate kitchen is really feeding all the employees in their corporation, and that’s it,” Sanders said. “With them serving one meal, maybe two at the most, it definitely helps out on food safety.”

John Sanders, supervising sanitarian, Cincinnati Health Department

Corporate kitchens are often outsourced to big management companies like Sodexo and Compass Group, both of which declined to participate in this story. Sanders said they tend to have more rigorous quality standards and employee training programs than the small-business operators that often rank among the region’s top food-safety violators.

“In corporate settings we find issues with equipment, employee practices and procedures,” Sanders said, “personal hygiene, stuff like that.”

In addition, corporate kitchens are often located in secure facilities that limit access to non-employees, including health inspectors.

“Places like that, we have to schedule in advance,” Sanders said. “We usually just inspect restaurants unannounced.”

Despite those advantages, corporate kitchens will occasionally have bad inspections. In 2016, the Central Cafeteria at Procter & Gamble Co.'s downtown headquarters complex racked up 66 violations. Sanders said that caused the company’s food-service vendor to get more pro-active with inspectors. Now, he ranks it among the city’s best corporate kitchens.

“Lot of places have bad days,” Sanders said. “And sometimes, if they’re having a bad operating day we just happen to show up. So that inspection may be worse than normal. I don’t pass judgment. I just say we need to get this corrected.”

P&G referred questions to its food-service vendor, Compass Group, which declined to comment.

Although it has no food-service locations reserved for employees, the Cincinnati Zoo was home to one of the city’s most unusual restaurant closures in 2019. An inspection at the Tuskers snack stand was interrupted by swarming bees on Sept. 26. The stand was closed until Nov. 4, according to city records.

“Our inspector was like swatting them away, called me immediately,” said John Sanders, supervising sanitarian for the city. “The workers were scared around there. And when our inspectors are scared to inspect the place because of bees, they need to take care of that situation. And they did.”

The zoo’s account of the closure was less dramatic. Spokeswoman Michelle Curley said in an email that Tuskers closed “for a short time” because of bees and flies.

It “reopened after air curtains were placed over the openings of the stand. The City added the curtain requirement after the stand passed inspection in 2017, and our food vendor made the adjustment as soon as they were made aware of the code change.”