Ensuring safe food is on the menu

Billy Thompson empties a basket of hush puppies into a bowl at Burk's BBQ in Rock Hill. Burk's and other local eateries have been proactive in asking state DHEC officials for proper procedures for ensuring safe food preparation.
Billy Thompson empties a basket of hush puppies into a bowl at Burk's BBQ in Rock Hill. Burk's and other local eateries have been proactive in asking state DHEC officials for proper procedures for ensuring safe food preparation.

Armed with a test kit, thermometer, flashlight and tablet computer, Will Manning walks through the kitchen of Burk's BBQ on Cherry Road.

The senior inspector for the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control has spent eight years ensuring restaurants and other establishments are safe and clean.

Manning watches cooks such as Burk's BBQ's Billy Thompson prepare food in restaurant kitchens, looking for violations in hygiene, cooking and dishwashing that can make people sick.

"If they're doing the critical stuff wrong, chances are they are doing smaller things wrong, too," said Manning, who performs more than 500 restaurant inspections in York County a year. "Hopefully, when we leave each restaurant, they have learned something."

Ken Beaty, food program supervisor for DHEC in Region 3, which includes York and five other counties, said Burk's BBQ is more proactive than most restaurants. He said its owners asked DHEC how to do things first instead of learning the hard way from a low inspection grade.

The family-operated Rock Hill restaurant, owned by Kevin and Jean Marie Burkhammer, scored 100 on its last inspection in January.

"We follow the rules we learned from DHEC," Jean Marie Burkhammer said. "We keep it the way it's supposed to be all the time. We have to stay prepared so there's no fear of an inspection."

The restaurant's priority is ensuring food is cooked throughout and stored properly, she said.

"We don't want to get a bad rap -on our food."

A "bad rap" is not all restaurateurs worry about. Some fear the score a restaurant inspector leaves on their wall.

"Putting a C on the door of a business is a sickening feeling because you know you're affecting their business," said Beaty, who has been inspecting for a decade. "But you have to do what you have to do to keep people safe."

Looking for violations

Each place that serves food -- from schools and hot dog stands to restaurants -- is inspected routinely, Beaty said.

"It's not about pleasing us, it's about food safety," he said. "I'll eat at most places. Most of them do a good job. I'll eat in York County."

Inspection visits are a surprise to the owners and have become more interactive, he said.

In the past, inspectors would focus on the floors, walls and dishes, he said. "Now, we want to work with the owners and managers -- to watch their processes and know that they are preparing food right. We ask them to show us."

Inspections cover how a facility stores, cooks and cools food, Beaty said. Because those are the critical factors that can cause someone to get sick, they are the primary focus.

Some common mistakes include not cooking food to the correct temperature, storing it improperly and not washing hands properly before touching food. Beaty said employees in South Carolina aren't required to wear gloves.

Inspectors check dining rooms for cleanliness and inspect salad bars for basic sanitation -- sneeze guards, temperatures of food and other items, Beaty said.

Inspectors also check the floors, walls, plumbing, cleaning supplies and employee appearance and hygiene.

"We have to sell them on why they need to do things right and how to do them right," Beaty said.

How long the inspector spends with swabs and thermometers depends on the complexity of the facility's menu and how many types of food are cooked at the restaurant.

An inspection could take several hours, but if restaurant staff explain their processes correctly and do things right, it shouldn't take more than an hour, Beaty said.

"We are in a position to impact a facility's ability to make a living," he said. "We take our job seriously. We may not be popular with some restaurants, but we're respected."

Manning is one of three full-time inspectors in York County. Beaty also oversees two inspectors in Chester County and one in Lancaster County.

Manning became interested in inspecting restaurants while he was working as a cook during college. He said he was fascinated by an inspection of that restaurant and thought it would be a cool job.

"It's fulfilling to know you're helping to protect the state," Manning said.

Scoring the inspection

Out of the nearly 1,800 routine and follow-up inspections in York County last year, about 10 percent scored lower than an 88, the cut-off for an A. More than 500 facilities scored 100, and 380 of them were during follow-up inspections, according to data provided from DHEC.

In Chester County, less than 5 percent of the nearly 400 inspections resulted in a score lower than 88. Seventy-eight inspections resulted in a score of 100, and 65 of those were from follow-up inspections.

Old Town Bistro on Main Street in Rock Hill scored a 100 on a follow-up inspection last November, and owner Stacey Giannatos said she learns from the inspections.

"I care about my customers. If you want to be a success in business, it's up to you to keep the environment clean for your customers," Giannatos said. "In- spections are a great way to keep everyone straight. People deserve to go to a restaurant that's clean with great food."

Critical risk factors such as not warming food at the right temperature, incorrectly cooling and re-heating food and not having the right sanitation formulas for washing dishes have to be corrected before the inspector leaves, Manning said. These violations account for the largest deductions.

Restaurants with these violations will be inspected again within 10 days. If the facility scores below a 70, it will be reinspected within 72 hours, Manning said. There's a chance those facilities could lose their license.

Beaty has shut down restaurants before, and he said it's not pleasant.

"It doesn't happen often because these folks that run these restaurants will do everything they can to comply," he said. "Generally, if they close, it's due to something they can't control, like a contaminated well."

The lowest score from a routine inspection last year was 52 last May, according to data provided by DHEC. The restaurant scored a 100 on its follow-up inspection. Two Chester County restaurants tied for its lowest score in 2007 with an 80.

So far this year in York County, the lowest score is a 48 in February, according to the data. The restaurant got a 78 the next day.

Scores and grades hanging on the walls of restaurants in North Carolina aren't equivalent to what people find in South Carolina, Beaty said. North Carolina can subtract half points for violations, thus their scores often are higher than a restaurant kept the same way across the state line, he said.

But a lot of customers at local restaurants said they don't even notice the scores of their favorite places to eat. Brian Baker, who dined at Olive Garden in Rock Hill last week, said he doesn't look for the score unless there's a problem.

"We assume they're clean and rely on the reputation of the restaurant," he said.

Olive Garden scored an 88 at its last routine inspection in early February and a 100 on its follow-up a week later.

It's hard for a customer to judge what's going on in the kitchen from looking at the dining area, Beaty said.

"If there's no soap and or towels in the restroom, there may not be any in the kitchen either," he said. "But it'll be hard for a customer to tell if the food is being stored properly."

Burkhammer, of Burk's BBQ, said these inspections are important because her family eats at other restaurants.

"We want to make sure others are following the regulations for the food we eat," she said.

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Want to know how your favorite restaurant scored on its most recent health inspection? Come to heraldonline's exclusive Restaurant Inspection Database to find out. It contains routine and follow-up restaurant inspections in York and Chester counties from January 2007 through February 2008.

Just log on to heraldonline.com/restaurantinspections to search.

DHEC investigates all complaints about restaurant safety and health, Region 3 Food Supervisor Ken Beaty said.

Issues or complaints can be reported at www.scdhec.net/health/envhlth/food_protection/complaint.asp.

Further information in these inspections also can be found on DHEC's site.

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