Third Party Inspections: A Good Idea?

By MICHAEL CUMMINGS
January 17, 2012

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. 

[i] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/index.htm
[ii] THE EFFECT OF INFORMATION ON PRODUCT QUALITY: EVIDENCE FROM RESTAURANT HYGIENE GRADE CARDS, Ginger Zhe Jin and Phillip Leslie
[iii] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/phcommon/public/eh/closure/restall1.cfm
[iv] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/rating/

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.  www.theaspecialist.com

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