STEELE CREEK--Like anyone with a favorite local restaurant, Larry and Barbara Richardson want to know their meals and the people who serve them are as clean as possible. But the Tega Cay residents had no idea any place could be this clean.
"I'm 65 years old and I don't ever recall seeing a 101," said Larry Richardson, who eats regularly at Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Steele Creek.
Following its April 7 inspection by the Mecklenburg County Food and Facilities Sanitation Program, the local Five Guys scored a 101 on its sanitation grade. The county conducts about 10,000 food service inspections of almost 6,000 establishments each year, including everything from restaurants to school cafeterias, nursing homes to hospitals, camps and even special event food service.
Of those inspections, restaurants receive the most attention with sanitation inspections every four months. So far in 2008, only 24 inspections ended in a score of 101 or higher.
"I'd say most scores fall in the lower to mid-90s range," said Lynn Lathan, health supervisor for Mecklenburg County. "But we get the whole gamut, from a score less than the 70 required to keep them open all the way up to 102."
So how does a restaurant score better than 100? Violations with varying point reductions ranging from .5 to 5 are taken from a standard of 100 points. Businesses that complete the ServSafe education program -- equalling 12 classroom hours -- receive an additional two points, for a maximum score of 102.
Of the 34 areas of possible violations, the Five Guys in Steele Creek received only two .5-point deductions, and neither for violations relating to the food itself. The shield on a lighting unit was cracked and the inspector suggested a designated storage area for employees' personal items, but otherwise, no infractions were found.
"Basically, it's just safe food-handling practices," said Craig Cronk, general manager for Five Guys. "There's too many horror stories out there for restaurants. As long as you do things consistently, you'll be fine."
Consistency is a company commitment, Cronk said, and it seems as though cleanliness runs in the family at Five Guys. Three other Charlotte locations scored 100, 99.5 and 98 on their recent evaluations. The Steele Creek store scored a 98 on its Sept. 6 evaluation, followed by a 101 on Dec. 10.
The sanitation score at Five Guys is posted next to the cash register, where customers order, for everyone to see.
"You go into so many restaurants, and it's something I look out for when I go out," Cronk said.
The Five Guys recipe for cleanliness starts with the two-point educational bonus, then includes a weekly cleaning checklist that provides accountability for the two assistant managers and 22 hourly employees. It also includes employees like Emanuel Rosario, who takes cleanliness personally.
"I don't like cooking in a dirty kitchen," Rosario said. "I don't like it at home, and I don't like it here."
Three or four people stay late to clean when needed, Rosario said, and employees only get tips if the weekly cleaning checklist is complete. How much of Rosario's day is spent cleaning?
"All day," he said. "I learned to clean as you go. That's what I'm always saying and always telling people is, clean as you go. It's a lot easier when you close."
The high score instills a sense of staff pride, Cronk said, especially when customers can go online and see every sanitation report in the county and every infraction.
"I think it's a good tool," Cronk said. "It gives the public a sense of security."
That peace of mind can make all the difference for customers, even when the restaurant is their local favorite, Barbara Richardson said.
"It means a lot," she said. "When you can look over the counter and see how they're doing, it makes a difference."
For the Steele Creek Five Guys, the first of the chain in Charlotte but still less than three years old, providing the best experience possible for customers makes all the wiping and washing worth it.
"One person with a bad experience tells 10 people, on average," Cronk said. "I do. And since we depend on repeat business, we can't do that."
Want to know the score of your favorite Steele Creek restaurant?
Log on to mecklenburg.digitalhealthdepartment.com to search restaurants throughout Mecklenburg County. Information about smoking or non-smoking restaurants, as well as healthy eating choices, also is available.