On today’s episode of “Trib Talk,” Tribune reporters Benjamin Wood and Kathy Stephenson discuss Utah’s restaurant industry and the health-code violations that can force a business to shut down.
A lightly edited transcription of their discussion is included below.
Benjamin Wood: For years, reporter Kathy Stephenson has covered the good, the bad and the ugly of of Utah’s restaurant industry, from delicious reviews to the health-code violations that require a business to shut down.
Today, she’s sharing the red flags she watches out for when she’s enjoying a meal and the horror stories she’s reported on over the years, from cockroaches on countertops to live animal slaughter on the restaurant premises.
From The Salt Lake Tribune, this is Trib Talk.
I’m Benjamin Wood, joined today by Kathy Stephenson, the Tribune’s food reporter and et cetera. Kathy, thanks for joining us today.
Kathy Stephenson: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Wood: Kathy, I did not have to look far on your staff page before I found an example of a Utah restaurant being shut down for what we might call questionable health and safety procedures. Tell us a little bit about the restaurant last week; this is the one — in case you’ve mixed it up with some of the myriad others you’ve covered — that had a sink spilling water onto the floor because the pipes were patched with a plastic bag.
Stephenson: A plastic bag, yeah. Surprisingly, this one isn’t the worst one I’ve covered. But [it was] a Mexican restaurant in West Valley. The health department had gone in a month before and they had some problems and were working with them, trying to check, and this was a follow-up.
They came in and there was water all over the floor. It looked like the sink had been repaired with a plastic bag. There were other problems, too. I think 40 violations, 23 critical, so there’s always critical violations and noncritical, and the critical are the ones you really have got to pay attention to. [There was] a manager who didn’t know what was going on, which is always a big problem.
Wood: Just looking through this list I’m seeing unrefrigerated meats, [and] interior surfaces of a reach-in freezer are unclean with spilled chicken blood.
Stephenson: I know. It’s restaurants that just don’t keep up and keep clean. So surfaces that are dirty. The health department is always looking for anything that will cause health problems. So you’ve got to be packaging things correctly. One of the big things is labeling. If they store something you have to label it with a date so that it’s not in there for 10 days and then they decide “Hey, let’s pull this out and serve it.”
This one was problematic, yes.
Wood: You mention how this is not the worst case you’ve seen. You’ve been covering stories like this for, going on 18 years now?
Stephenson: I haven’t always done the health department [reports], because they didn’t used to post them. In recent years they updated their website and they made their inspection reports available online. So really anybody can go online and look at these reports, not just me. They’re public knowledge and they’re posted pretty easily. You just go to Salt Lake County Health Department and you click on inspections and you can go look at any restaurant in Salt Lake County. You can plug in their name, their address, or even just the city — you don’t have to do the address — and you can see what their last inspection report was.
But when they close [a restaurant] I get a little alert that says “We’ve closed a restaurant.” And so I go look.
Wood: How often do you look at a restaurant’s report in your private life? Do you look before you head out for dinner on a Friday night?
Stephenson: That’s a good question. Generally no.
Wood: Intentionally no?
Stephenson: Intentionally no, because part of it is I know the ones that I write about are kind of the exception. They do restaurant inspections every day — five, 10 every day — that pass and are fine. And sometimes I like to go to a hole-in-the-wall and I’d rather just not know.
Wood: Ignorance can be bliss in restaurants?
Stephenson: Ignorance is sometimes bliss, yes. But you know I go into the bathroom first thing, check it out, make sure people are able to wash their hands, that’s a big thing. If they don’t have soap and hot water, that’s a big clue. That’s a big red flag.
Wood: A lack of hot water at a restaurant?
Stephenson: Yes, lack of hot water.
Wood: I think this one you wrote last week, there wasn’t hot water?
Stephenson: There wasn’t hot water.
Stephenson: Anywhere. You want to make sure that they’re able to sanitize their dishes and the employees are able to wash their hands and dry them.
Wood: Preferably, frequently.
Stephenson: Frequently, yes. So my husband will go in and I’ll say “What did the bathroom look like? Was there hot water?” So I am a little bit [cautious], but I think generally we’re OK. I think that maybe if you have a compromised immune system you would be more interested in knowing the restaurants that might have problems.
Wood: What are some of the worst stories that you recall from your time doing this?
Stephenson: I really cannot beat the one from, I think it was 2015. There was a restaurant, a Mediterranean restaurant, that was slaughtering goats in the parking lot.
Wood: Does the health department frown on live-animal slaughter?
Stephenson: It says live sheep are being stored and slaughtered on-site in the back parking lot. I can’t beat that. Truth was better than fiction.
Wood: But again, that’s not to say the food wasn’t delicious.
Stephenson: No. A plastic bag with sheep limbs and a sheep head were found in the back area. And live goats and dogs being cared for on the premises. Hand-washing sink was blocked and not being used. So, those were the three.
I feel bad sometimes because I think a lot of the restaurants that get cited are immigrants, refugees who are just coming to this country. Maybe [they] don’t speak English and don’t understand health-department rules.
Wood: Right, they’re probably familiar with a different culture of restaurant upkeep.
Stephenson: Yes, every country does something different. If you’ve traveled abroad you know that everybody has got different rules. When you come here, you’ve got to follow those rules, and I think a lot of times it might be a language barrier.
So I do know the health department tries to work with them. The one last week, it was a follow-up. They were working with them. I’m assuming maybe they didn’t speak English so they’ll work with them. We need to keep up, though.
So the goat one really stands out, for me. There are many that have the extreme: cockroaches, mice. Whenever you hear that, that’s a problem. I think a lot of restaurants probably do have cockroaches, but they keep them in check. It’s when the health department finds them roaming around that you know the owners are not keeping things in check.
And a lot of times I think there’s absentee owners, so they’ve left it to a manager who, you know, they don’t care. That’s not their [restaurant], they don’t own the property, they’re just kind of hanging out. I think sometimes absentee owners, they’re not there checking on things and making sure employees are doing the right thing.
One of my favorite ones that I see a lot are people leaving their shoes next to the food in the closet, or they put their drinks on the counter. It’s very common. If you don’t have a good manager saying “You can’t do that, you can’t leave your drink here and leave your shoes next to the rice in the cupboard,” that’s a problem too.
Wood: Some of your reporting will mention these repeat-offender locations, and you mention there’s a lot of following up. For a restaurant that gets shut down, is that the end of the line?
Stephenson: No, they have to fix things. A lot of times it will only take them a day and we try to, if you notice online, I’ve been trying to go back and update that they’ve reopened because the health department has said “OK, you’ve fixed the things. You can do it.”
Sometimes the restaurant does close. I see later on somebody has bought it and they’re remodeling it to do something else. If you have to spend a lot of money to make it worth it, obviously I think these people don’t have a lot of money. The restaurant business is super hard. The margin of profit is small and so if you have to spend $10,000 to fix the pipes or eradicate cockroaches, it might put you over, so they just close.
Wood: You mention how you sometimes like to eat at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Have there been any cases of not hole-in-the-wall restaurants, or have you ever been surprised at fairly established places getting dinged by the health department?
Stephenson: I would say this one last week because we reviewed it like two years ago when it first opened and we gave it a good review. I posted a really pretty picture of their molcajete and it looked good. In fact, a couple commenters said “It doesn’t seem fair to post good-looking food and then say it closed.” So you never know. Maybe when they started out it was great, maybe the ownership has changed hands, maybe there’s a new manager. You’re never quite sure what happens.
Most of them reopen, and fairly quickly. There was a couple food trucks that were closed because their hand-washing sink was broken. You can fix that pretty quick and they open the next day. I would say maybe 80 percent of them reopen. Maybe there’s some that take a few weeks or they just change hands, so always check back.
Wood: I’m curious what kind of feedback you get on your articles. I worked at a restaurant when I was in high school. I think a lot of people have that restaurant experience. No restaurant is run perfectly.
Wood: I tend to get sort of a guilty pleasure thrill out of reading your stories, I imagine I’m not the only one. So what kind of feedback do you get from when you write about these scenarios?
Stephenson: I haven’t really heard back too much from the restaurants. I think they’re a little bit angry, a lot of them have emailed me and said “Hey, we’re open. Can you make sure you update the story?”
Wood: The rats are gone.
Stephenson: The rats are gone.
Wood: We’re not killing goats in the parking lot anymore.
Stephenson: I try to update the story, but maybe it keeps people on their toes a little bit if they know the health department is coming and it might be published. That’s what you want. I mostly get people, consumers, who are like “Thanks for letting us know about this.” Or they’re sad because that’s their favorite restaurant and now they’ll be not sure if they want to go again. I haven’t really had any complaints.
The health department appreciates it. They always say it helps them so people know what their job is. I think a lot of times people don’t know what health inspectors do. They’re out there kind of checking and making sure everybody is following the rules.
Wood: Tell me a little about the inspection process. I assume these are surprise visits and that the restaurants don’t know they’re coming.
Stephenson: Every restaurant I believe gets inspected at least once, but maybe twice, a year. And it’s a surprise inspection. They just come in unannounced. I’ve been on one, it’s been several years but I’ve been on one. They’re just looking for anything that’s not following code. They have a little list. Surprisingly the things that we write about are kind of the exceptions, not the rules. I have a list of the most common violations and it’s equipment — food contact surfaces, nonfood and utensil cleaning — so dirty things.
Wood: Right, overall cleanliness.
Stephenson: Overall cleanliness, right. Eating around food that you’re cooking is another one. And tobacco, I guess people might smoke in the kitchen. I think that’s pretty common. I guess if you saw the health inspector you better put out your cigarette.
And then I don’t know if you’ve noticed a lot of the stories have food held at the wrong temperature.
Stephenson: You’ve got to be cold, you’ve got to be below 40 degrees cold, that’s the temperature that kind of keeps bacteria from growing. Or you’ve got to be hot. If you’re in that 40 to 75 [degree] temperature range, that’s when everything is growing.
Wood: That’s when it’s a party.
Stephenson: I should say potentially growing. It won’t always do it. So when food is held that way, or if it’s been cooked and they store it in the fridge and it doesn’t have a date on it, the health department wants to know how long has that food been there? Just like the food in your fridge at home, like “Hmm, leftovers. How long has that been there?” So you’ve got to date things and keep track.
Wood: I lived in New York briefly and it’s famous there that they have to post their letter grade in the window of every restaurant — the “A,” the “B.” And it’s a total scarlet letter to have anything less than, really anything less than a “B.” So I’m curious for restaurants here in Utah, is this a similar scarlet letter to have some of these records?
Stephenson: I think it’s a little bit easier for them. You’re right, if you have it posted in your window it’s much more obvious. I don’t know how many people, like me, how many are going to the website and checking to see what the last inspection was.
Wood: Is that really the only place you’re going to find it?
Wood: They don’t have to post them in the windows here.
Stephenson: They don’t have to post them in the windows. So if the Salt Lake [County Health] Department wanted to get tough I suppose they could start doing letter grades. But it’s public information, you can just go to the website and kind of peruse your favorite restaurant and look. Nobody gets a perfect score. I’ve never seen anybody that has no violations. There’s always something that needs to be fixed or cleaned, but usually can be fixed in a day or right there when the inspector’s there and they pass and it’s fine. It’s just the ones that are extreme that get closed down.
Wood: In addition to food, you’ve been watching the evolution of our local liquor laws here in the state. Especially as we’ve moved from the Zion Walls to the curtains and moats and demilitarized zones and any number of metaphors that have been invented to describe that thing.
Wood: With the latest round of changes, how are are restaurateurs feeling about the new status? And what is it, if you wouldn’t mind trying to describe it?
Stephenson: There were many changes two years ago, and they’re going into effect now, as we speak. Right now, the biggest thing is anybody who had a dining club license — which is kind of a hybrid between a bar, which you could only have people 21 and older but you didn’t have to order food.
Wood: And you can walk around with a drink in your hand.
Stephenson: You can walk around with a drink, you don’t have to order food, bar, 21 and older.
Then there’s a restaurant where you have to order food. You had to have the Zion Curtain. So then years ago they developed this dining club [license], which is this hybrid where you didn’t have to have a Zion Curtain, you could bring kids as long as they were with an adult, and adults could have a drink without ordering food.
So it was this great kind of mix and so many restaurants designed their business around the dining club. Well, they took that away last year. And now you have to decide before July 1 if you’re going to be a bar or a restaurant. And so many of them are struggling because families come, should they be a bar? I think people should recognize that if something changes at one of the restaurants they like, it’s because they can no longer be the dining club.
I just saw East Liberty Tap House is having a party because they have to become a bar. They’ve been a dining club, people could walk down with their kids, have dinner, Mom and Dad can have a drink. No more. Starting on July 1 they’re going to be a bar, 21 and older.
They have decided to open a restaurant next door to kind of keep their clientele, but not anybody can just say “Hey, I think we’ll open a restaurant.” So I wrote about some places in South Jordan and Herriman, it’s [the cities’] first bar. They wanted to be a bar and the city was like “Well, we don’t allow bars.” But because of the law, they’re making the exception.
Wood: Because it’s a pre-existing …
Stephenson: Yeah, the Legislature said “We told them they could choose. So we don’t want the locals saying.” South Jordan isn’t very happy about it. Herriman is a little bit better. They said “We’re going to allow the bar and maybe change our [laws] so we can maybe have a few more.” Just because of the growth. People are coming from all over and maybe it’s time to have one or two bars.
Wood: For restaurants then, for these dining club establishments that are going the other direction, do they still have to have the opaque preparation room or do they just have to have a buffer zone?
Stephenson: You can choose to have a Zion Curtain if you want. Sometimes that’s the only thing that fits in your restaurant the way it’s built. But now you can have the buffer, the 10-foot buffer. And kids under 21 cannot be seated in that buffer area, which is not a problem. I think restaurants are happy to have that.
Wood: I’m thinking of restaurants, like, here at The Gateway we have the Applebees where there’s that central bar area and tables around the edges. That would be a buffer?
Stephenson: Easy buffer, yeah. And I think a lot of chain restaurants, that might be something that’s already in other areas of the country. This maybe normalizes it a little bit, just as long as kids aren’t right next to the bar, they’re kind of further away.
But some restaurants have the Zion Curtain in a back room and there’s no way to change that. So you’ll still see some of the drinks mixed back in the back and brought forward. It will be new restaurants that will design not to have those. But I think that’s a plus, but everything the Legislature gives they also take away in little bits. The dining club, I think, was a problem for a lot of legislators because they felt like it was a bar that let in minors. I don’t know if that’s the case really but that was a lot of their feelings.
Wood: As that continues to evolve we’ll look for your coverage there. Before we wrap up, to kind of bring us back to where we started on the less-savory aspects of the Utah restaurant industry, you mentioned how a lot of these times the health department goes in, they create their report, their report goes online, but you have accompanied them on some inspections. At least once.
Wood: I’m curious if there’s anything that you have seen with your own eyes in some of this horror-story fashion.
Stephenson: My biggest pet peeve, I don’t know if I would say I’ve seen it when I was on a restaurant inspection, I just see it when I go out to eat. The person who is making your food is not supposed to take your money.
Wood: Because money is filthy. Money is disgusting.
Stephenson: Money is dirty. So there’s lots of times I’ll be somewhere and go “Yeah, that’s a health-code violation right there.” That’s kind of a big pet peeve of mine that I see a lot. I think it’s very common in the fast-casual, right? Because people move down the line, fix your food and then take your money. It’s a violation. But I don’t really ever point it out. I have an iron stomach if anybody knows me.
Wood: When I was a waiter we ran our own till. That was constantly a thing. You check them out, you wash your hands, you check someone else out, you wash your hands.
Stephenson: I think it’s hard, too. There’s a lot of restaurants struggling to find enough employees. So if you’re trying to run your restaurant with minimal employees, I think that’s going to happen.
Wood: I’m curious after 18 years writing all these stories: rats, cockroaches, dirty plumbing, blocked sinks, cold water, no fridges. Does it haunt you at all? You love food?
Stephenson: I love food, and I love to go out, and I love to try new restaurants. I remind myself that these are the exceptions. We don’t write about the everyday restaurant that passes with flying colors and does great. I’ve been in lots of kitchens that are super clean and nice and the chefs are meticulous about things. So I try to probably stick to those restaurants.
Wood: Any new restaurants in the city that you’re particularly excited about?
Stephenson: I am writing today about — you’ll get to read it online soon.
Wood: At sltrib.com!
Stephenson: Publik Ed’s, so Big Ed’s that was up by the University of Utah is going to be the fourth store for Publik Coffee. But they’re paying homage to Big Ed’s and keeping the Ed, and “Publik Ed’s” sounds great since it’s right next to the U. and all that. I just talked to the owner and she said there will be coffee and breakfast but also burgers and beer.
Wood: A little bit of everything then.
Stephenson: A little bit of everything. It’s still going to be a tiny little hole-in-the-wall, she said, but they’re opening it up, doing some more windows and doors and a patio. So I think University of Utah students will be surprised when they get back to school in the fall for that.
Wood: Excellent, and watch out for that review on sltrib.com. Kathy Stephenson, thanks so much for joining us today.
Stephenson: Thanks for having me.
Wood: “Trib Talk” is produced by Sara Weber, with additional editing by Dan Harrie. Special thanks to Smangarang for the theme music to this week’s episode.
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