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Dirty Dining: Check violations at restaurants across the Tri-State

'We want it to be safe. We want it to be healthy.'
Posted: 12:40 PM, Aug 21, 2023
Updated: 2023-08-23 12:46:30-04

CINCINNATI — The mice are never on the menu.

But they could be in the building when you buy your next meal.

More than 100 local restaurants, grocery stores and other food-service establishments were cited for rodent violations in the first half of this year, based on the WCPO 9 I-Team’s analysis of food-safety violations from eight local health departments. Although some of the businesses took weeks to resolve the problem, all but four remained open while they cleared pests from their property.

That’s because health inspectors try not to close restaurants when they spot a problem. Instead, they work with food-service license holders to correct the underlying issues that cause rodent and roach problems and food-handling mistakes that can make customers sick.

“We want it to be safe. We want it to be healthy and we want to educate,” said Middletown Health Commissioner Jackie Phillips-Carter. “I leave it up to the expertise of my inspectors and if they feel like it’s a safe environment, then I trust that it’s a safe environment.”

Jackie Phillips-Carter became Middletown's health commissioner in 2010.

The I-Team has been monitoring restaurant violations for more than a decade. This year is no different from past years, in that roughly 3% of all violations involved pest problems, including rats, mice, roaches and flies. The reports can be shocking to read but they aren’t necessarily evidence of a safety problem, as inspectors found when a vendor complained about a Kroger store at 4001 Hamilton-Cleves Road on May 4.

“There was a dead mouse stuck on the shelf,” the unnamed vendor wrote. “My coworker had to literally pull it of(f) because of the pee it was stuck in. The smell was so bad it was making us almost throw up. The odor of the pee is very strong. The day before a customer pulled out a box that had mice babies in it. We took it (to) the management and they basically acted like they didn't care they had a rodent problem.”

The next day, inspectors documented mouse droppings throughout the building and dead mice in traps in a back storage section of the store. All violations were corrected when inspectors returned May 8. The store had six violations in two subsequent inspections since then, but none involved pests.

“Food safety is our top priority,” a Kroger spokesman said. “These issues were quickly addressed and resolved in compliance with Hamilton County Public Health.”

Most restaurant closures are voluntary
Every local health department takes a different approach when deciding whether citations warrant closing a restaurant. Hamilton County uses a pre-administrative hearing process where inspectors and their supervisors identify changes they want to see. In the first half of this year, 25 restaurants were scheduled for such hearings and nine voluntarily closed for periods of one to seven days to complete the required changes.

The Cincinnati Health Department reported 10 closures in the first half of 2023, all of them voluntary. The Northern Kentucky Health Department had three. Clermont County had one. All 23 closures are listed at the end of this story, along with WCPO’s Dirty Dining database, listing every violation we obtained in the I-Team's public record requests.

The food-service establishments with the longest closures this year had multiple problems, not just mice.

Wings Bar & Grill at 2235-1 Bauer Road in Batavia had 151 violations in 2022. Then, the restaurant was cited Jan. 4 for “mice droppings in back storage room” and “multiple live cockroaches throughout back kitchen.” Problems continued into April, when the health department imposed a two-week license suspension that ended April 27. In its last inspection Aug. 1, Wings had 11 violations, none for pests.

The restaurant declined to comment.

Wings Bar & Grill in Batavia had the longest closure, among 23 food-service locations that shut down to resolve health code violations this year.

Ollie’s Bargain Outlet at 2250 Waycross Road has battled a rodent problem since July 2022, when a complaint said the store was “infested with rats.” After a clean inspection last November, Hamilton County found “rat droppings in (a) box of coco flavored nuts” on Jan.13, followed by “evidence of rats and mice throughout the entire store” in March. The store closed for seven days ending April 17 so it could do a “full-building fumigation.” It hasn’t had a rodent violation in three inspections since then.

“The Ollie’s store at Waycross Road in Forest Park was closed for cleaning after a neighboring retailer’s pest management situation led to issues at our location,” wrote Tom Kuypers, senior vice president of marketing for the Harrisburg, Pa.-based retailer. “Since the store was closed we have received three completed 100% passing inspections of the site.”

Ollie's Bargain Outlet in Forest Park had zero violations in its most recent inspection July 26.

What it takes to get rid of mice
Restaurants and grocery stores can usually eliminate pests without closing if they seal off holes that let critters into the building, maintain regular service with a reputable pest-control company and keep interior spaces clean and dry, said Moshe Kibel, owner of High Rock Pest Solutions.

“All a mouse needs is a quarter of an inch gap. That’s it. A rat only needs half an inch,” Kibel said. “A person could have in his own house, he might see one or two mice, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh, we can’t sleep here.’ You know, you do something, you trap it. You do what’s necessary to get rid of these mice.”

Kibel brought the I-Team to Marx Hot Bagels in Blue Ash to show us “one of the cleanest restaurants we do.” Inside, we found food-preparation machines on wheels to allow for better cleaning access. Inside and outside, on the building’s perimeter, rodent traps flanked every exit. The store was cited for mouse droppings last September, but hasn’t had a pest-related violation since January, when inspectors found “gaps/openings at garage door separating back storage area from dock.”

Moshe Kibel, owner of High Rock Pest Solutions, explains how to prevent mice.

At Taku Japanese Steakhouse in Middletown, owner Ella Huang was surprised in January when inspectors found mouse droppings “in several areas in kitchen” and cited the restaurant for “using Raid and Decon themselves” to combat pests.

“We do clean our floor every day. So, we don’t see that,” Huang said. “I don’t see that. It’s on the floor. Corner. The health department inspector, she discovered that.”

Middletown's approach to food safety
Records show Middletown inspectors had never cited the restaurant for mice problems until January, but Taku has seen a rising number of total violations since 2021, when it had 28 citations. The violation count jumped to 71 last year and 62 in the first two months of 2023.

Taku ranked sixth in the region in the total number of violations in the first half of this year. But that requires some context. Middletown has a history of writing more violations than other departments and this year is no exception. Seven of the top violation counts in our searchable database are Middletown stores and restaurants.

Ella Huang and her husband, a chef, opened Taku Japanese Steakhouse in 2016.

“We try to be very business-friendly but our patrons and our community trump businesses,” said Philips-Carter, Middletown's health comissioner since 2010. “We have the luxury or the convenience to have enough staff and enough restaurants and facilities to manage that we can go and do follow up inspections. Every time you do a follow up inspection it can lead to more violations.”

A self-described foodie who began her public-health career as a nurse, Phillips-Carter said she never checks restaurant inspections before dining out.

“I love to eat and I even go to risky places,” she said. “I just take my chances.”

But she does pay attention to a restaurant’s cleanliness and avoids eating outdoors. When her food arrives, she checks to make sure it isn’t under-cooked. And if she notices anything amiss, she talks to a manager and urges others to do the same.

“If you have not really a good feeling about something, speak to a manager, right then and there,” she said. “That would stop anything that may be happening. And then call your health department.”

Middletown’s health department received a complaint about Taku Japanese Steakhouse Feb. 9, when a party of nine said they got “severely sick 30 minutes after eating” at the hibachi grill and sushi restaurant. Inspectors walked through the restaurant Feb. 10 and “observed eggs being stored at room temperature” but issued no citations after a worker put the eggs in a refrigerator.

Phillips-Carter said the foodborne illness complaint was “not verified,” partly because the restaurant received only one complaint.

“If it was something in the food, there should be multiple complaints,” she said.

The complaint happened 16 days after Middletown inspectors found mouse droppings in the restaurant, along with 13 other critical violations and 24 noncritical issues. Phillips-Carter said all but 10 noncritical violations were corrected within three days.

“They do respond to what we say. They really do,” Phillips-Carter said.

Huang said she is sure Taku’s mouse problems are behind her.

“We pay fortunes. They take care of the problem,” Huang said. “They put a lot of traps in. Outdoor, indoor, all the corners. That’s what they've done for me. They did catch some.”

The I-Team received violations data from public record requests to the Northern Kentucky Health Department and Ohio Department of Health, which contracts with local health departments to store food-safety violations so they can be offered to residents online. Cincinnati’s data came from the city’s Open Data portal.

The following restaurant closures came from local health departments directly.

NKY closures:

  • Guthries, 1795 Patrick Drive, Burlington. Suspension 1-30-23; reinstatement same day. “Sewage surfacing in food prep area”
  • Waffle House #851, 64 Broadway, Dry Ridge. Order to cease operation 5/15/23 for “roaches creating a imminent health hazard.” Closed until re-inspection 5-18.
  • Holiday Inn Airport, 1717 Airport Exchange Blvd, Erlanger. “No hot water in kitchen for 2-3 weeks.”

Cincinnati closures:

  • Young's Kitchen - 2042 Beechmont Ave - Cockroaches throughout the facility.
  • Darou Salam Restaurant - 4163 Hamilton - Closed for roach activity.
  • China Food - 410 W. McMillan St. - Closed for roach activity/no ability to wash dishes.
  • Frisch's Price Hill #8 - 5216 Glenway - Closed as the result of a fire.
  • Little Caesars - 5243 Glenway - Closed for unsanitary conditions/no hot water.
  • UC Chick-Fil-A - 2701 Bearcat Way - Closed for a water leak within the walls.
  • Mavericks Restobar & Lounge - 601 Vine St - Closed as a result of a fire.
  • Bona 5515 - IHOP 5515 - 3222 Geier Dr - Closed as a result of a fire.
  • OTR Bagel Bar - 107 W Elder St - Closed as a result of a fire.
  • Drip Coffee Lounge Bond Hill - 4930 Reading Rd - Closed due to refrigeration failure/food time-temperature abuse.

Hamilton County closures:

  • Popeye’s #759, 9202 Reading Road. No hot water for dishwashing Feb. 1. OK to re-open Feb. 14.
  • Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, 2250 Waycross Road. Company agreed to 7-day closure after multiple rodent violations to do a “full-building fumigation” in April.
  • Singh’s Valley Grocery, 6319 Vine. “Facility has voluntarily closed due to presence of mouse feces,” Hamilton County inspectors wrote Jan. 19. It was permitted to open the next day.
  • Crafty Crab, 7677 Montgomery Road. After multiple food-handling violations, it was “permitted to re-open” after an April 4 inspection with no violations.
  • Taste of Belgium, 7800 Montgomery Road, Suite 14. Five critical violations on Feb. 17, permitted to re-open after no violations Mar. 16.
  • Hui Bing Wu (Kumo), 4990 Delhi. April inspection documented “rodent feces throughout the facility,” corrected by the next day. Inspectors found “four dead mice” in the building June 12. After 3-day closure, no violations on the 14th.
  • Nababi Hyderabad House, 11963 Lebanon Road. Roach problems from February to April led to 2-day closure ending April 27. No pest violations since then.
  • Red Squirrel, 8227 Colerain Road. Closed three days in July for repeat violations in probationary period.
  • Little Caesars, 5500 Harrison. Closed three days in June for refrigeration problem.

Clermont County closure:

  • Wings Bar & Grill, 2235-1 Bauer Road. The restaurant was cited Jan. 4 for “mice droppings in back storage room” and “multiple live cockroaches throughout back kitchen.” Problems continued into April, when the health department imposed a two-week license suspension that ended April 27.

Our Dirty Dining database includes violations through June 20. To see more recent violations, visit the health departments shown in our data. You can find those departments here: