County's restaurants making the grade

By Ed Brock

See Page 9A for listing of local restaurants and their grade.

Raymond Garrett has an eye for rat burrows, mislabeled chemicals and cups of soda where they don't belong.

As a field inspector for the Clayton County Board of Health Environmental Health Division, Garrett has learned a few tricks.

When he first started working for the county a year and a half ago, Garrett said, he would circle around the building. Then he realized that some restaurant owners would recognize his car and start cleaning up.

"I like to go straight to the kitchen. That doesn't give them time to clean," Garrett said while making one of his surprise inspections. "I want to catch them in their rawest form."

There are more than 600 restaurants, schools and other industrial cooking facilities in Clayton County and five inspectors including Garrett. They make a regular, unannounced inspection of the facilities every six months, not including follow up inspections and responses to complaints.

Violations fall into three categories, with Category 1 violations being the worst and Category 3 violations being minor. The eatery is given a score between 0 and 100, but it's not a pass/fail system, said Walter Howard, Clayton County's District Environmental Health Director.

"If there is sewer water in the restaurant of course we have to close it," Howard said.

A large number of the restaurants and facilities on the departments most recent inspection list scored highly, between 90 to 100. Restaurants scoring below 85 should cause some concern, Garrett said, but he likes to keep his restaurants scoring 95 or above.

But a high-scoring restaurant is still far from perfect, Howard said.

"You can have a lot of Category III violations and still have a score of 90," Howard said. "The scoring is pretty accurate but not perfect."

The best policy is to inspect the reports themselves wherever you eat, Howard said. They must be posted in a clearly visible area for the customers' perusal and failure to do so is a violation.

It's hard to say what the most common violations are, Howard said. Food preparation and keeping food stored properly before serving are some key elements.

Hot, cooked foods should be kept at 140 degrees Fahrenheit or higher while cold foods should be kept at or below 41 degrees.

"The thing we're looking at is to keep that food out of the danger zone," Howard said.

In the danger zone bacteria are most likely to multiply.

Walking through the Subway restaurant on Ga. Highway 85 north of Riverdale, Garrett points out a few minor infractions in the relatively new establishment. Mops and brooms kept on the floor instead of on a rack, a gap between a door leading outside and the doorframe, and a telltale soda cup in the food preparation area, a sign that an employee was drinking there in violation of the code.

Inspectors can enter a facility at any time during their regular business hours, though some of them don't like it much when they come during lunch, their busiest time.

"But a lot of times we find that's the best time to come, to see what their food handling process really is," Garrett said.

Garrett looks outside the building too, checking for those signs of pests like mice, rats or ants. A mouse can squeeze through a crack the width of a No. 2 pencil, he says.

After sticking a sanitized thermometer into the sandwich meat and dipping a chemical test strip in the dishwasher's sink, Garrett sits down with Subway Manager Betty Morgan to discuss the issues.

Usually it's just a matter of pointing things out.

"I was surprised about the brooms," said Morgan, who also said that this was the first time the Board of Health had inspected the shop under her watch since it opened in March.

A facility is usually given about seven days to correct at Category III violation, 72 hours for Category II violations and 24 hours or less for Category I violations.

"If it has to be closed it takes a judge's order," Garrett said. "They remain closed until they take care of the problem."

Garrett gave Morgan's operation a 94. She also has to pass an inspection by the Subway corporation every month.

"They really have different categories," Morgan said, adding that they also provide each franchise with everything they need to stay in regulations.

Managers at corporate franchise restaurants are usually more accepting of intrusions from health inspectors than locally owned restaurants, Garrett said. On the other hand, Tony Haynes, who with his wife Leana owns the At the Table Bakery & Caf? on North Main Street in Jonesboro, said he welcomes the visits.

"I think it's a wonderful thing for them to come in here and tell the public they can eat comfortably," Haynes said.

At the Table scored 100 on the recent inspections.

And there's one more link in the regulatory chain n the public.

"We rely on the public when they see situations that don't look right to call us," Garrett said.