Critical violator: Twice-closed Tavern vows a cleaner menu
Recently, The Tavern, the long-lived breakfast joint on Emmet Street where "students, tourists, and townpeople" meet, became the place where the salmonella bacterium met with a long history of health code violations.
Health inspection records show that over 60 food handling and preparation violations have been served to The Tavern since January 2003, including 13 during a single inspection last summer. Many of those were "critical repeat" violations, meaning the Health Department had already asked the managers to comply. To put that in perspective, Mel's CafÃ© on West Main has had four critical violations since 2003, Orzo has none since opening in 2006, and Golden Corral has had 23 since 2003.
In early July, that track record came back to haunt The Tavern.
Health department officials keep their investigations on food poisoning confidential, says Elizabeth Davies, a senior epidemiologist with the Thomas Jefferson Health District, to prevent episodes like the recent national tomato/pepper scare and unnecessarily damage a restaurant's reputation.
"Nine times out of ten, the problems are corrected," says Davies. "We contact the media only if we think there's a genuine risk to the public." But after Davies' office began receiving reports of illness in early July, several of those infected contacted local media outlets, claiming the Tavern was the source.
By the end of July, there were 16 reported cases of salmonella poisoning with 10 confirmed. While Davies still won't name the Tavern or reveal what food was infected, she says "It was pretty obvious it was a common exposure to a particular restaurant."
Amid the intense media scrutiny, and by recommendation of the health department, Tavern owner Shelly Gordon voluntarily closed his restaurant July 25. He was also quick to confirm the news reports of salmonella poisoning and vowed to re-educate his employees about healthy food-handling practices.
"After this is over, we'll be the most compliant restaurant in Charlottesville," Gordon said, "but right now we're not."
However, after he re-opened the Tavern on July 29, Davies says Gordon was ordered to close again on August 2 pending completion of the investigation and follow-up inspections. On August 8, health officials finally allowed The Tavern to re-open.
But given the restaurant's long history of violations, why should the public believe things are going to be any different?
"We had a bad history of violations, no question," Gordon admits. "We've lost business, our reputation has been hurt, and frankly I'm embarrassed by it, but we hope to regain the public's trust."
Gordon says he has re-hauled his food-handling procedures based on the health department's recommendations, completed a re-certification course in food handling, and is now requiring his employees to wear gloves. "We've been under the microscope because of this, but we don't mind," he says. "We're dealing with the problems, and right now I'd say we're one of the safest restaurants in Charlottesville."
It's still unknown exactly what food carried the salmonella bacterium, says Davies, but that's largely beside the point, she adds.
"A customer can can bring salmonella into a restaurant," she explains. "It's how food is handled, stored, and cooked that leads to food-borne illness."
Critical violations are defined as being "more likely than other violations to directly contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental degradation." They include poor hand-washing procedures, not properly washing equipment and utensils, and leaving food out– violations for which the Tavern has been repeatedly cited. These violations, according to the Health Department's website, "can create environments that cause bacteria to grow and thrive, which puts the consumer at risk for food-borne illness."
As a rule of thumb, Davies says that restaurants should treat all raw meat, eggs, and chicken as if they were contaminated, making sure to cook them well and prevent cross-contamination by following strict food-handling procedures. She also encourages restaurant patrons to report any possible violations they may have witnessed.
Davies acknowledges that the Tavern has an unusually long history of health code violations, one that comes perilously close to the Health Department's criteria for shutting a place down: a restaurant can be "closed due to accumulation of repeat, continuing, and flagrant violations of the regulations that could lead to food-borne illness."
But Davies says the restaurant has since complied with inspectors. Besides, she adds, folks might not want to be so quick to single out the Tavern. "If you look at the Health Department's inspection records, there are quite a few restaurants with violations," she says.
Indeed, the Tavern received four critical violations during a July inspection, an alarming number it would seem– until the inspection records are reviewed.
Not only does that number of violations appear to be routine, people might be surprised who receives them. Whole Foods Market was cited for five critical violations in January and seven in 2007, while Golden Corral just down the road had only one in October last year.
The Shebeen had nine in May, Martha Jefferson Hospital had four last December, HotCakes had eight in May, the Bluegrass Grill had four in June, Bang had six in May, Michael's Bistro had 11 in May, and even Bodo's received two in July– and the list goes on.
Oddly enough, many fast-food restaurants in town appear to have more acceptable records (in addition to stand-outs like Mel's and Orzo), but more likely than not, someone's favorite home-grown restaurant has more violations than fans would think.
Of course, that's as it should be, as the Health Department is there to keep restaurants in compliance, explains Jeff McDaniel, an Environmental Health manager with the Health Department. Routine inspections always come with a follow-up inspection, and the violations usually are corrected by that second visit.
With only six field staff monitoring 800 establishments, McDaniel says, the Department is not able to do inspections "as often as we like." Still, he says officials manage to visit most establishments twice a year, even though they're mandated to do so only once.
By and large, McDaniel says that local restaurant owners are eager to comply, given the considerable cost of having to discard food and the risk of being shut down, and that the health department works to help restaurants comply. Still, he says, it's the restaurant owner's responsibility to put the proper procedures in place to avoid violations.
"A restaurant owner has a huge chore to manage these risks," says McDaniel. "It's a lot to prepare great cuisine, plus make sure your employees follow procedure. Some restaurants are more successful than others."
Updated 08/15/2008 1:11pm