COTNi invites The A Specialist to visit their facility in Malawi

Children of the Nations International (COTNi) invited The A Specialist to visit their facility in Malawi to provide food safety training to their kitchen staff.

The following blog documents this trip, which began on May 14th, 2018.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018, by Michael Cummings

We arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi at mid-day after 29 hours of travel from Los Angeles. We were met at the airport by Pike, who is in charge of the Venture program for COTN, Malawi. Pike and “Mr. Dongo” gave us a driving tour of the highlights of Lilongwe and we ended up at a small village called Mtsiliza where COTN runs a program that educates and feeds hundreds of children while the parents are in Lilongwe working or looking for work. Without such a program, the children would be without any supervision, hungry and at the mercy of the whims of life in rural and impoverished sections of Lilongwe.

Michael with local children.

Although my traveling companions and I were exhausted from rigors of the trip, we were quickly invigorated by the reception we received at the community center in the village of Mtsiliza. A chorus of young children, nearly a hundred of them in all, overwhelmed us with songs they had been learning in their day program by the COTN instructors. “Overwhelmed” is not an exaggeration — any louder and the windows, had their been glass in them, might well have been blown out.  I felt as though we were “visiting dignitaries” with the program that they had prepared and presented to us.

Following the full-throated singing of the children, a half dozen young girls performed a ritualistic dance while keeping the rhythm with wooden blocks they held in each of their hands.  As they danced, they knocked the wood blocks together, creating a mesmerizing spectacle of rhythm and choreographed movements.  It was beautiful and impressive.  When the girls were finished, a group of young boys came out to perform.  These boys too were dancers, but they danced to the sound of drums being beaten by two young men who were skilled on African drums.  Like the girls, the boys were in uniforms and the boys were every bit as coordinated in their choreography.  The dances performed by both groups were like extreme calisthenics and by the end of each program, all of the performers had worked up a sweat. 

Just before leaving the village, we looked at the two large metal vats were used for cooking the food for the children.  One vat had a rice dish garnished with local ingredients mixed in, and in the second vat they had prepared a local vegetable dish.  We spoke with the woman who was in charge of the cooking so that we could understand how they prepared the food as well as how the utensils were cleaned following the meal.  What we learned will be added to other observations we intend to make about the food operations of COTN and include our findings in our wrap-up report.   

Norman, Dale and hosts.

After we left the village we drove to the Malawi headquarters of COTN.  It is a magnificent compound, encircled by a high brick wall.  All of the bricks used in the wall and the buildings within the compound were created in a small foundry on the property.  The first thing we did upon arrival was to visit the main kitchen where snacks had been prepared for us.  Then we were shown our quarters for the night and we unpacked and did all we could wash the dirt, grime and “travel” off of ourselves.  We learned, however, that frequently the electricity goes off in the entire area.  It was off when we arrived and has stubbornly remained off for the most part up to the present time.  

A dinner was prepared for us and this gave us a chance to talk with Isaac, who prepared the meal and is studying to be a chef.  Isaac and the staff at the kitchen compound, under the leadership of executive chef, Jon _____ will be the focus of our training program coming in two days time.  This training is the reason we have traveled half way around the world.  We intend to provide the kind of rigorous training that we provide to hundreds of cooking professionals throughout California.  At the end of our training session, each participant shall have completed the same course that would give them an official manager’s certificate of SerfSafe Food Safety training.  

The meal was excellent and capped off an amazing and full day for us.  As we walked across the compound to return to the building housing us we heard the rhythmic pounding of drums close by.  We observed a large building that was lit up and filled with young people dancing.  This was not the kind of dancing you are likely to see in California or really any place in the US.  The young people, for the most part, were high school students who were getting ready to graduate, many of them going on to university or trade schools.  I thought of my own high school graduation celebrations and was struck by the differences.  I remember that many of my contemporaries had a rebelliousness strain to their celebrations.  Dancing in unison with other students would have been inconceivable.  To watch the young Malawians, who had gone through the COTN educational system, was touching and impressive.  It also speaks highly of the love and care that has been poured into these young people.

And this is from our founder and CEO, Anthony Barton:

Dear Friends,
If a picture is worth a thousands words then these 3 can be worth ten thousand. 
The A Specialist team of Michael, Norman and Dale are in Malawi 🇲🇼 this week and next week Michael is traveling to 🇺🇬 Uganda. We are grateful for their service, talents but most importantly their heart to lend a helping hand to communities that are in need.
We are doing serv-safe training with an emphasis on food handling, cross contamination, and temperature control protocols.  We are teaching at schools, orphanages, and cafeterias. We are working with chefs but also training aged out orphans in culinary food safety.  Thank you Jerry Nine and Ryan Butler Of Butler Chemicals  for donating equipment and chemicals
Yolanda and I just wanted to keep you updated on new and exciting things happening at The A Specialist.   

Grace and Peace,

Anthony and Yolanda


The A Specialist On A Mission To Uganda

We at The A Specialist are so excited to reinvigorate our blog, and announce that we are sending The A Specialist VP and expert in Food Safety & Compliance, Michael Cummings, on a mission trip to Uganda and Malawi. He will be accompanied by Food Safety Experts Norman Van Gelder and Dale Deleake.

Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa whose diverse landscape encompasses the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains and immense Lake Victoria. Its abundant wildlife includes chimpanzees as well as rare birds. Remote Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a renowned mountain gorilla sanctuary. Murchison Falls National Park in the northwest is known for its 43m-tall waterfall and wildlife such as hippos.

Malawi, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, is defined by its topography of highlands split by the Great Rift Valley and enormous Lake Malawi. The lake’s southern end falls within Lake Malawi National Park – sheltering diverse wildlife from colorful fish to baboons – and its clear waters are popular for diving and boating. Peninsular Cape Maclear is known for its beach resorts.

Check back in frequently for updates. We will be instructing best practices for Food Safety and Compliance in key areas of Uganda and Malawi, and explaining why we chose these particular venues.

Third Party Inspections: A Good Idea?


I understand why an owner of a restaurant would decline the services of a 3rd Party Health and Food Safety Inspection.  After all, the executive chef runs a tight ship and the Health Department has always given them an A grade.  Moreover, each manager is fully trained and ServSafe Certified and the entire kitchen staff now have their Food Handler’s card.

To quote one restaurant owner, “Why let strangers into our kitchen just to interrupt our workflow and tell us things we already know?”

Why indeed?  The economic slump continues to deepen and fewer people are eating out, which means restaurants have to work harder to attract customers.  Fewer customers mean smaller profits.  At the same time we are witnessing increasing scrutiny and emphasis on food and industrial safety requirements from the regulatory agencies and the public alike.   All this comes at a cost and the restaurateur is the one who gets caught in the middle of this squeeze.

Is this increased scrutiny from the regulator agencies truly beneficial?   The stated purpose of the Los Angeles Health Department is to “…protect health, prevent disease, and promote the health and well-being for all persons in Los Angeles County.”[i]  So are they fulfilling their commission?  Since Los Angeles County introduced the grading system in January of 1998 and required that grade cards be displayed in the window the incidence of food-borne illness hospitalizations has decreased by 20 percent.[ii]  

A 20 percent decrease is statistically significant.  So where does the 3rd Party inspection fit into this equation?  In a perfect world, the HD regulator would show up mid morning or mid afternoon, do their inspection, issue the A that was clearly earned and then go away until next quarter.  When the inspection uncovers substantive issues like vermin infestation, sewage, lack of potable or hot water or unsafe food temperatures then the restaurant should be issued whatever grade or lack thereof they’ve earned. 

Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world.  More often than not, the inspector will show up at the worst possible time on the worst possible day.  There is no such thing as rescheduling.  The restaurant is on the inspector’s timeframe now and any attempt at suggesting otherwise could be misconstrued as obstructionism.  (Ever try arguing with an officer in the white zone at LAX?)  It is inevitable that mishaps will occur even in the most conscientious kitchens on a busy day and these mishaps belong in the inspection report.  However, restaurants can also be issued violations for such trivial offenses as worn gaskets on refrigerator doors, improperly displayed signs, burned-out light bulbs, ice scoops placed improperly, faulty paperwork and other such minutiae. 

It doesn’t take much to lose a perfect score, even in the best-run restaurants.  The restaurant gets a surge of walk-in business on the very day of the big private party.  The plumbing picks that day to back-up and both the manager and sous chef are out ill.  The inspector shows up at the height of lunch, just in time to catch one of the waiters sneezing into his hands before rushing out with a customer’s meal.  It happens.  I’ve witnessed it.  How fortunate for this particular restaurant that in this case, the inspector was from a 3rd Party and not from the County.  Sure, the restaurant scored a mid-80’s B grade, but they didn’t have to post the grade for the entire world to see.  The owner got a detailed report of what the staff and employees were doing or not doing as well as pictures posted to a password protected on-line gallery showing all of the violations in his restaurant.  Too often an owner will take for granted that his or her entire staff is as enthusiastic about cleanliness and safety as he or she is. 

Upon analysis, it turns out the restaurant had been calling in a plumber about once a month.  The 3rd Party Inspection team recommended an inexpensive drain-lock that kept the nightly cleaning crew from flushing solid debris down the drains and a green enzyme cleaner was added to their regular routine.  The result: no more clogged drains and one less plumber on the monthly payroll.  Additionally, the restaurant was offered a refresher training course to hammer home all of those employee health and hygiene practices that are so easy to neglect in the heat of a busy lunch crunch. 

From September through December of 2011 in Los Angeles alone, there have been over three hundred facility closures due to an intervention by the LA County Health Department.[iii]  Among these closures included some well-known places that would come as a shock to many Los Angelinos.  A quick tabulation on the County’s website shows that nearly 2200 restaurants have recently been downgraded from an A to a B grade.[iv]  Again, there are some real surprises on this list, including some of my own favorite watering holes. 

What is the real cost a restaurant closure or downgrade?  It is a hard number to quantify because the circumstances are so unique.  I know of one popular restaurant in Burbank that when the Health Department issued them a C grade, they voluntarily closed their restaurant rather than attempting to serve customers while having a giant C displayed in the window.  They remained closed until they could reschedule the inspector to come back and be satisfied that they had fulfilled all of their requirements to be issued an A.  They chose to lose the revenue from being closed for a week rather than having any customers influenced by seeing a C in their window. 

Why they were issued a C grade is a question they will have to answer honestly if they hope to avoid it happening again.  However, the restaurant owners understood that most of the public isn’t familiar with the Health Department’s voluminous code and will assume that if a restaurant has posted a B or C grade, that it is due to un-cleanliness or unsafe practices.  Whether or not that is the case, in all likelihood that restaurant will have lost a customer forever.  And these days there is a good chance that many of the customer’s friends are on Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the folks that I know who own or run restaurants got into the business because they love good food and good atmosphere and they wanted a place of their own where their friends could hang out or they had a goldmine of a concept.  For every one hundred restaurant owners there are a hundred different reasons why they got into the business.  But I’ve yet to hear anyone say that they got into the business because they wanted to deal with the Health Department and they love getting out of bed each morning just to see what new regulations await them at the restaurant.

A good 3rd Party Inspection team is an owner’s friend.  If the manager is doing his/her job, then the 3rd Party is their friend too.  If the manager is not doing his/her job, then the sooner the owner knows it, the better.  A good 3rd Party Inspection team will only employ industry experienced inspectors.  They will have on-going training for their own staff and a robust and thorough program for developing new talent.  They will employ processes that allow the owners to clearly see strengths and weaknesses within their own organizations.  The processes will allow the owners to track these stats over time and across the organization. 

The 3rd Party Inspector walks a fine line in the restaurant.  They are not there in an adversarial capacity.  They are there to help.  Yet, their presence is not to be ignored or taken for granted.  Just because the 3rd Party inspector does not have the legal authority to require compliance or impose penalties for non-compliance, they still must have the ability to command respect from their clients and the strength to compel remedial action to be taken.  Each side of the equation in a 3rd Party relationship has a responsibility.  A healthy relationship involves communication and earned respect.  If a 3rd Party Inspection team can prevent even one downgrade, or heaven forbid, a closure, then their worth is incalculable. 


Michael Cummings is Vice President of The A Specialist, the largest company in Southern California specializing in commercial kitchen services.  Services include 3rd Party Health and Safety Inspections, ServSafe Training and Certification, Comprehensive commercial kitchen and facilities cleaning and a range of related consulting services.