SPRINGDALE, Ohio — Taco Tuesday used to bring lines out the door of Tortilleria Garcia on Springfield Pike near I-275 in Springdale.
“What makes us different is we cook our own corn,” said Omar Garcia, founder. “We boil it, let it dry, grind it into masa.”
But authentic cuisine only takes you so far when nearby office buildings are empty.
“You got GE right there, P&G, you saw people from everywhere,” Garcia said. “When everybody was working from home, we saw just sales plunging down.”
Garcia found an unlikely ally in the Springdale Health Department. It is offering grants of up to $5,000 to its licensed food-service establishments that lost at least 30% of sales during the pandemic.
“They are good businesses, ingrained in our economy. We want them here,” said Matt Clayton, Springdale Health Commissioner since 2015. “And I don’t mean just the health department. I mean the general public. We want to see these operations succeed.”
Garcia thinks he will qualify for the grant, saying his Springdale location lost about 35% of its revenue.
“It’s pretty nice to see that they’re helping us out, because we’re little guys,” Garcia said. “We’re not big chain companies. Every little thing helps definitely to stay open.”
'A very unusual time'
That is only one of the ways local health departments changed their approach to restaurant inspections in 2020, based on an I-Team analysis of food-safety reports. It shows local health departments wrote 22% fewer violations in 2020, as pandemic prevention took priority over scrutinizing kitchens for their cleanliness and cooking methods.
“This has been a very unusual time for public health,” said Clayton, who worked for 15 years as a health inspector for Cincinnati and Hamilton County before joining Springdale. “It’s been a very busy time. It’s been a very stressful time.”
WCPO has published annual reports on local restaurant violations since 2013 in an annual report we call “Dirty Dining.”
We expected the numbers to change in 2020, a year that forced 17% of all restaurants to permanently close nationwide. But we did not expect the massive changes that came with COVID-19.
We compared two years of data from the Northern Kentucky Health Department and Ohio health departments in Cincinnati, Middletown and Springdale, plus Hamilton, Warren and Clermont counties. Among our findings:
- The seven departments conducted 11,250 inspections in 2020, down 14% from 2019.
- Inspectors wrote an average 3.46 violations per inspection in 2020, a decline of 10%.
- The seven departments wrote 185 fewer hand-washing violations, 370 fewer infractions for rodent problems and 823 fewer citations for improper food temperatures.
- Northern Kentucky, which temporarily closed 13 restaurants in 2019, closed only five in 2020, none of them after March 26.
- There were 1,226 food-service establishments that were inspected before April 1 but did not receive a second inspection before the end of the calendar year.
Because many local health departments were investigating COVID-19 complaints about mask wearing and social distancing, state officials waived a state requirement that restaurants and retail food establishments receive two inspections in the licensing year that ended Feb. 28.
“It is understandable that in the 2020 licensing period it may be difficult for some local health departments to conduct the number of required inspections,” the directors of Ohio’s health and agriculture departments wrote to local health departments in July.
Springdale, Middletown and Warren County told the I-Team they fell behind on second inspections but expected to catch up before their licensing year ended last month.
“Staff members were initially re-allocated to assist with an influx of COVID-19-related complaints and questions early on in the pandemic response,” said Chris Balster, director of environment health in Warren County. “One staff member was transitioned to assist primarily with contact tracing during the first months of the pandemic as well. Since that point, staff members have continued to help with activities such as COVID-19 complaint follow-up, assisting with mass testing clinics during the summer, and now assisting with the vaccination campaign.”
Middletown was the only department to increase its total number of violations in 2020, boosting its total to 2,988, up 12% compared to 2019.
“We’re good inspectors,” said Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips. “We’re very thorough and we will write what we see.”
Middletown had seven of the top 10 facilities in our annual list of food-service establishments with the most violations. The highest-ranking restaurant, Gold Star Chili at 2930 Towne Blvd., racked up 106 violations in two February inspections over four days. CEO Roger David said the restaurant had a roach infestation that spread from a vacant storefront next door.
“The restaurant acted fast to address all violations, and within eight days, they were down to zero” violations, he said. “As you can see from the inspection history, February 2020 was a significant exception to the otherwise high safety standard and performance at this restaurant.”
Another restaurant, Gracies LLC at 1131 Central Ave., was closed for indoor dining when most of its violations were written in five inspections from Oct. 21 and Nov. 18. Because it was serving take-out customers from an adjacent deli, Phillips said the entire restaurant had to be inspected.
Phillips said Middletown restaurants are safe, no matter their violation counts.
“I would eat at all those places,” she said. “I’m a foodie. I would eat at them and I wouldn’t be concerned about them. And we’re going to work with all of them to make sure they have what they need to be successful.”
Back in Springdale, Health Commissioner Clayton is preparing to review grant applications from the roughly 100 food-service establishments it regulates.
The $100,000 in available funding comes from Springdale’s allotment of $2.5 million in Community Development Block Grants, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development distributed through Hamilton County in December.
Springdale is one of 11 jurisdictions to receive funding for “assistance to restaurants for outdoor seating, PPE and COVID-safe retrofits,” said Hamilton County spokeswoman Bridget Doherty. Clayton said Springdale included grant applications with its annual license renewal packets.
“I thought it was very innovative of the city,” said Dan Busken, fourth-generation CEO of Busken Bakery. “Not typical at all to receive an application from the health department offering money to help sustain the business during these times.”
The company closed four of its eight retail locations in 2020 as its revenue declined 50% and the pandemic forced painful staff reductions. In April, Busken said members of the founding family questioned whether the company would survive.
“For the first time in my career, every piece of the business mattered, every line item in our expenses," Busken said. "And it was very long days of just saying, ‘What is most important to get us through to the next day?’”
The drama continued into December, when Busken had to close its four remaining retail stores for two days because eight of its 10 bakers tested positive for COVID-19. Busken will submit a $5,000 grant request to cover its increased costs for plexiglass barriers, gloves, masks and cleaning supplies related to COVID-19.
“We think the worst is behind us, but we’re obviously still picking up the pieces from last year,” Busken said. “We know we’re a staple in the city. We’re one of those iconic food brands. And thank goodness we’re going to survive.”
Just around the corner from Busken’s Springdale location, Omar Garcia agrees there are brighter days ahead for his restaurant, Torilleria Garcia. But he could still use that Springdale grant money to recover from the train wreck that was 2020.
“Bills, payroll. I mean everything helps, to be honest with you right now,” Garcia said. “It’s been pretty rough, the whole year.”