Restaurants net five stars despite signs of infestations
Windsor Star DEREK SPALDING
Windsor restaurants with top-notch health ratings might not be as spotless as customers think.
Getting high marks from health inspectors despite signs of pest infestation is common, according to a Star review of inspection records. In the past year, inspectors found mouse droppings on the floors of several restaurant kitchens and still gave them five stars — the top rating for food safety.
The Star analyzed thousands of Windsor-Essex County Health Unit records for the region’s nearly 2,400 restaurants and places that prepare or store food. The records covered the last three inspections and revealed that the star rating system — designed to inform the public — might not be what consumers expect.
Restaurant customers approached by the Star were alarmed that a five-star score doesn’t represent impeccable cleanliness.
“If you have mouse droppings on the floor, you shouldn’t have a five,” said Larry Tome, before sitting down for a meal at the Lumberjack Restaurant, which had a four-star rating at the time.
Restaurants can have signs of pests and still maintain a five-star rating because of a demerit point system that reflects the overall safety of food preparation areas.
Any infraction identified by an inspector earns demerit points — anywhere from one for minor issues to 10 for the most severe transgressions. Restaurants lose a star in their rating for every 11 points they accrue. Signs of pest infestation are worth seven demerit points. Failing to wash your hands while handling food can earn a 10-point penalty.
So an eatery could be cited for a severe infraction, like serving undercooked food, and still have a five-star rating. Likewise, an owner with a handful of minor infractions, such as failing to monitor the dishwater temperature, could drop a star.
Advocates of the system think the naming and shaming encourages restaurants to adhere to the rules, said Keith Warriner, a food science professor at the University of Guelph. But he thinks food safety rating systems can be complicated and need to be simple if they are to be understood by the public.
“Yes, it’s good to be transparent, but when you start putting stars up there and coloured signs on the doors and things like that, you’re asking a lot of the consumer. If I go in here, I’ve got a 50 per cent chance of being ill. And I don’t think that’s necessary. The obvious solution is that when we go to a restaurant, we don’t expect to have any chance of being ill. That’s the point,” he said.
But Windsor health officials say the system works.
“Just because you’re a five-star doesn’t mean that you’re perfect,” said Mike Tudor, inspection manager at the health unit.
Most restaurant owners interviewed by the Star endorse the health unit’s inspection system, saying it helps ensure compliance with regulations outlined by provincial legislation, but say the five-star rating in particular can be misleading.
“There could be a more effective way of doing this, whether that’s making it more clear what they find or cracking down on the worst offenders,” said Windsor city Coun. Rino Bortolin, who owns Rino’s Kitchen downtown.
The longtime restaurant owner said far too many establishments have five-star ratings, while others, which score two stars or less, never get shut down.
“If I ever saw a two star, I’d be concerned about going there because I know what it takes to get a two,” Bortolin said. “If you’re doing that many things wrong, you have to rethink what you’re doing.”
Warriner, a food safety expert, said he suspects some inspectors are reluctant to close restaurants because of fears of being sued or worries about the economic effects on the owner.
“Because you can’t just close everything down. Because it’s someone’s livelihood, it has to be very serious, (like) the public is going to have an imminent danger if they eat here,” Warriner said.
Since March 2014 five local establishments have been ordered closed for food safety violations, including Chanoso’s and South Detroit — two popular side-by-side establishments on Ouellette Avenue operated by the same owners.
Health inspectors first spotted signs of cockroaches in the basement when they made an unannounced visit to a downtown Windsor restaurant complex in late August. They returned two more times.
Both restaurants received food safety ratings over that period that ranged from two stars to five stars until they were abruptly ordered to close on Sept. 18. That’s when inspectors found signs the cockroaches had moved into the kitchen.
The restaurants were closed for a month and major renovations were done. It reopened with a five-star food safety rating.
Owners Seth Perera and Mat Mathias say they had even voluntarily closed up shop and called in a pest control expert prior to being shut down by the health unit.
“We felt we did everything we needed to do in order to stay open, but obviously they (inspectors) felt we weren’t in compliance,” Perera said.
The downtown will never be free from the likes of cockroaches and rodents, said Catherine Trudell, of Windsor Pest Control. Owners just need to do their best to seal up their buildings and implement stringent pest management programs, she said.
Perera and Mathias worked with the health unit and building owner Mark Boscariol to free their restaurants of pests. After they were ordered to close, they brought in a crew of workers to renovate the older structure, sealing it up “air tight,” according to Boscariol.
The result was they redeemed their five-star food safety rating.
“I don’t care about two stars, three stars or four stars, I only care about five stars,” Perera said. “For me as the owner, I want the five.”
Other restaurants have seen their ratings drop without having to close their doors.
Superstar Wings and Ribs, which doubles as an Eggsmart in the mornings, received a one-star rating in July after inspectors found dirty wiping cloths, dirty equipment and signs of pest infestation.
The restaurant, located in the Quality Inn Suites on Dougall Avenue in the downtown core, had a five-star rating in late March.
Pest control specialists visit the building once a month to ensure there are no infestations, according to manager Sasa Vela, who says most issues identified by health inspectors have been minor and easily fixed.
“If we had a big problem, the health authority would shut us down,” he said. “We always provide customers with the best, healthiest food. Every (restaurant owner) wants to do that.”
Some restaurant owners question whether the demerit point system is properly weighted.
“You can get an infraction for having a case of beer on the floor, which has happened, and that infraction counts toward your star rating just like evidence of pest infestation,” said Boscariol, who’s part owner of Snack Bar BQ and The Willistead Restaurant.
A lack of consistency is another common complaint, said Kevin Buckridan, the kitchen manager at Bubi’s Awesome Eats.
The restaurant has a three-star rating after an inspection in May, down from four stars in February. One reason is an inspector found a table near a hand-washing sink, which made it slightly more difficult for people to access.
The restaurant also got dinged for having takeout trays stacked on shelves, something Buckridan said had never been a problem with the previous 10 or 15 health inspectors.
“The rating holds little ground when the requirements differ from person to person,” he said.