Spoiled food. Soiled equipment. Dirty floors, dirty walls. Live roaches and flies inside kitchens. Dead ducks hanging outside.
Lexington’s restaurant inspectors have seen it all.
Since 2015, they’ve compiled a list of restaurants and other food service providers to target for heightened scrutiny.
As of mid-August, more than 100 restaurants were on a probation list including some of the most popular in Lexington.
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Also on the list: One Kroger, two hospitals, three private country clubs, four nursing homes and Lundy’s, one of the biggest caterers in Kentucky.
Places on probation are regarded as having a higher potential risk to the public health, said Luke Mathis, environmental health team leader, so the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department steps up inspections.
Food safety has become an important public health issue as food recall notices are issued nationally for everything from salad to raw meat.
In Lexington, the health department recently recommended everyone be vaccinated against an outbreak hepatitis A because of recent problems with food service workers in Kentucky testing positive for the virus.
Despite inspections, dangers can slip through. In July, hundreds of people were sickened by norovirus earlier this year after eating at the Fayette Mall food court, which closed down along with the Fayette Mall Chick-fil-A to sanitize premises.
None of the restaurants at the mall was on the probation list.
What gets a business flagged for probation? An inspection score below 85 or a “critical violation that can’t be immediately corrected,” such as sewage where it shouldn’t be, troubling employee hygiene practices such as a lack of hand washing, cold food being too hot or hot food being too cold, dishwashers not sanitizing properly, or evidence of rodents or insects, according to Mathis.
The most common violation? Dishes and utensils that aren’t being completely cleaned between uses, either because the dishwasher isn’t dispensing sanitizer or the water isn’t hot enough to kill germs.
Restaurants must be able to properly sanitize dishes, either by having the dishwasher immediately serviced or by temporarily switching to hand washing in a three-compartment sink. If they can’t, Mathis said, they have to close.
Restaurants are rarely closed down unless issues are dire, usually involving infestations of rodents or insects.
Another major problem: Employees not washing their hands or gloving properly, according to inspectors. And unhygienic practices in general, such as leaving drinks near food prep areas.
Washing hands and sanitizing dishes are the easiest and the most effective ways to stop disease transmission, so doing them right is critical to preventing outbreaks of illness.
“Nine times out of 10, if they’re on probation, it’s not for anything trivial,” said Skip Castleman, health department environmental health coordinator.
For restaurants, being on probation means inspections every four months instead of every six months. Once a restaurant has passed two regular inspections in a row with no critical violations, it comes off the probation list.
Inspections are “a snapshot,” Mathis said. “If they’re having a bad day, what we see is what we cite for.”
The Herald-Leader plans to periodically release names of restaurants and food service establishments as they are added and update the list as restaurants come off.
Some Lexington restaurants have been on probation for years, failing inspection repeatedly. And diners may never know it, although the restaurants are supposed to.
“We send them all letters when we put them on probation,” Mathis said. “We want to give more incentive to the establishments to perform better and correct the deficiencies. We’re trying to do more risk-based inspections. And if they’ve performed poorly in the past there’s a greater potential for them to cause illness.”
But does a bad inspection score matter to customers? It’s hard to know. A year ago, the health department switched to color-coded scores so customers can see instantly if the place they are going into has passed or failed its last inspection.
A green box on the inspection sign by the door means the place you’re about to eat at passed its last inspection; a red one means it failed. Castleman said diners often don’t notice.
“I’ve left red 65s (inspection scores) on the door and had people walking past me (into the restaurant to eat) as I’m doing it,” he said.
Sometimes members of the public do notice problems: In March, a customer spotted rows of duck carcasses hanging outside behind Panda Cuisine on Nicholasville Road and snapped a photo.
Health department officials forced the restaurant to throw out the ducks and set up a conference with the owners to discuss safe practices. The manager told the Herald-Leader at the time it was a “one-time thing.”
But Panda Cuisine had been on probation for nearly a year at the time and is still on probation. Managers Tong Xu and Ke Bao said last week that they did not want to comment on the March incident. Instead, they said through an interpreter, they hoped to focus on increasing safety and achieving better inspections in the future so they can serve good food to their customers.
Two restaurants have been on probation since 2015:
- Happy Panda on Town Center Drive, where inspectors saw “numerous live roaches,” according to the inspection report from December 2015. Happy Panda did not return calls for comment for this story.
- And Penn Station on South Broadway. Chris Bowen, managing owner of the local Penn Stations, said that it is very difficult to get off probation once a restaurant is on it.
“I’m not faulting the health department. They’re tough and rightfully so. We’re going to get it right,” Bowen said. “The issue with us is any one critical violation means you failed, even if it’s fixed immediately and your overall score is passing. … it’s been kind of a nightmare for us. ... But that’s our fault and we’ll own up to it and keep working to get it right. We want to be at 100 every single time.”
Eight restaurants have been on probation since 2016, including the Lexington Country Club.
Lexington Country Club did not respond to calls for comment.
Thirty-eight restaurants have been on probation since 2017, including Idle Hour Country Club, Shakespeare & Co. on Short Street and Saul Good Restaurant and Pub at Fayette Mall.
Andy Ginn, area manager for Saul Good, said that the inspection found a couple of sinks that weren’t getting enough hot water.
“That’s the whole reason why we didn’t pass. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for that location,” he said. “Our dish machines, high temp dishwashers, were getting up to 180 degrees on the rinse cycle, so we were allowed to continue to operate.”
Dana Rose, manager of the Idle Hour Country Club restaurant, said that she is “very proud of the sanitation and cleanliness of the Idle Hour Country Club … we have a very clean kitchen, and I’m very proud of it.”
Rose said that inspection reports should be posted with the inspector’s narrative.
“It can be misleading and very defaming, if the details behind the scores are not published as well. I think there’s a vast difference between some violations and others, but the scores don’t reflect that unless the details are there,” Rose said.
According to the health department, the critical violation that landed Idle Hour Country Club on probation last December involved the lack of permission to use for reduced oxygen packaging such as is used in sous vide cooking.
Mathis said that restaurants can print and post the full inspection report, which is emailed to them from the health department.
Damaging inspections can lead to major changes. Danny Haddad, head of operations for Shakespeare and Co., said that the restaurant changed managers and chefs since two bad inspections in 2017.
“We took immediate action based on that,” he said. “It’s old news and we have been scoring 98 and 100 in 2018. ... We’ve seen those changes have made a huge difference for us.”
Two locations of Puccini’s Smiling Teeth are on the list, although owner Jay Harris said he wasn’t aware of it. At the Chevy Chase location, inspectors found mold growing in the ice machine, an employee’s drink on the food prep table and unsanitized dishes. At the Dylan Place location, they noted the dishwasher not properly sanitizing as well as other unhygienic practices.
Harris said that Puccini’s takes it very seriously when the health department finds things that need correcting.
“We appreciate our guests and try to be proactive when they point things out,” Harris said. “It isn’t something I take lightly.”
Nick Zielke, general manager of the Puccini’s at Dylan Place, said he tries to keep his restaurant, which he’s managed since it opened 10 years ago, up to health department standards but said the inspections can be subjective.
“I think everything (inspectors) do is legitimately serious. ... Some look at critical violations a little more aggressively than others,” he said. “We work together; we’re on the same team. I do whatever I’ve got to do so everybody’s safe and people don’t come to my restaurant and get sick.”
Some restaurants are not as proactive: Lucky Hibachi Buffet on East New Circle was placed on probation in May of 2017 but scored a disastrously low 56 in February of this year, including evidence of insects or rodents.
Mathis said the restaurant was closed; a score below 60 warrants an automatic closure. They were allowed to reopen on March 5 after a conference with the health department to address major issues, he said.
At least 57 Lexington restaurants have been placed on probation this year.
The Bob Evans Restaurant off Winchester Road, a popular stop for interstate travelers as well as locals, was put on probation after a March inspection found hand-washing and gloving violations, plates stored unclean and multiple unclean surfaces.
Marsha Miller, current manager at the location, said she wasn’t working there then and denied there is an issue now. “The restaurant looks clean to me, and I’m a clean person, I like to pull out equipment and spray behind them,” she said. “I get employees involved and I clean just like it’s my own home.”
Three out of four Ramsey’s Diners were put on probation this year: The one on Old Harrodsburg Road for a waste disposal violation, the one on Helmsdale Place for unsanitized dishes and hygiene violations, and the one on Zandale for unsafe food temperatures, including raw chicken stored above 41 degrees for a undetermined amount of time.
Owner Rob Ramsey said he wasn’t aware of the probation listing or of problems at the Old Harrodsburg Road location. At Zandale, he said, he appreciated an inspector letting him know that raw chicken was being delivered at an unsafe temperature.
“I know we’ve had two inspections where we had a critical violation which caused us to have a low score ... and on reinspection scored in the mid-90s,” Ramsey said. “We haven’t done anything that has been food safety violations, with the exception of Zandale, and we took the steps to ensure it didn’t happen again. You say three of my four restaurants are on probation, that sounds horrible … you’re going to put me out of business.”
Ramsey said that telling the public his restaurants are on probation is misleading. “People don’t understand … that upon reinspection the score was good,” Ramsey said. “As far as I’m aware of we’ve never had a food safety hazard that has been passed to the public.”
His reaction isn’t uncommon. Other high-profile food-service kitchens object to the term probation, too.
The caterer Lundy’s of Lexington has been on probation since May after an inspection turned up deli meat beyond expiration, spoiled red onions, a dishwasher not sanitizing properly and an employee handling chicken salad with bare hands.
Owner Alissa Tibe at first denied the caterer had failed an inspection or been placed on probation. After consulting the health department, she acknowledged the score of 84 and sent this statement:
“On May 9, 2018, Lundy’s of Lexington received a grade of 84 percent placing our commissary on probation. We made the necessary corrections and upon re-inspection eight days later, on May 22, 2018, Lundy’s of Lexington received 100 percent. Our next scheduled inspection is scheduled on or before November 5 and we intend on receiving 100 percent as well as with future inspections moving forward. Food service safety and sanitation is of utmost importance to our company.”
The kitchen that serves both the cafeteria and patients at the University of Kentucky’s Samaritan Hospital has been on probation since May, when inspectors found live flies throughout the kitchen, which also had unclean walls and ceilings, as well as the can opener blade. There also was an open hole in the wall on the service line.
“Quality service to our patients and visitors, including in areas such as our dining facilities, is a top priority to us at UK HealthCare. Following the May 15 inspection, immediate action was taken to work with our food service vendor to correct these issues and to work even more closely with them to prevent future violations,” said Kristi Willett, UK spokeswoman. “A score of 98 was received on the follow-up inspection on May 30. While we regret the violations detected in May, we worked quickly to mitigate these issues and overall, UK Good Samaritan Hospital has passed all other health department inspections in the past five years with a score of 98 or above.”
The cafeteria at St. Joseph Hospital at 1 St. Joseph Drive also has been on probation since June, when an inspection found live roaches in the kitchen in the reach-in cooler, as well as unclean floors, walls, soda and juice dispensers.
“The June inspection by the health department was below expectations and not reflective of the scores our food service typically receives. We have addressed issues to ensure quality food service for our patients, families and staff. In fact, in a follow-up inspection in July, Saint Joseph Hospital food service received a score of 99,” said Mary Branham, director of communications for KentuckyOne Health.
In February, inspectors at the Kroger on Hartland Parkway found employees’ drinks stored on the milk rack in the dairy cooler, as well as chemical spray bottles stored above or next to food. Fans in the deli and meat department also were unclean and floors were unclean.
“Food safety, the safety of customers, and the safety of associates are our top priorities,” said Erin Grant, Kroger spokeswoman. “The Kroger team takes any such inspection seriously. We work directly with the health department and store team to rectify concerns as quickly as possible.”
Ramsey’s, Lundy’s, Kroger and the hospitals are examples of food service providers that have reacted swiftly and appropriately to dangers once they were pointed out, Mathis said. Which is exactly what the health department hopes will happen as a result of the increased scrutiny brought on by the list.