Going out to eat can be like rolling the dice. If you roll right and you get to go to a nice place with good food that's been prepared in a safe and clean environment. Roll wrong and you could find yourself at the sort of places that get shut down by health inspectors. Those health inspectors are the only ones who can steer you to the better option, but they can only do that by visiting filthy, vermin-infested
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They Claimed It Was Just “Tomato Juice”
“On my first inspection, I came across a bloody knife on the counter. Now, this was a vegan restaurant, so I questioned the owner about why it was there. He told me it wasn’t blood but tomato juice. I didn’t believe him, so I looked around a little more and found a butchered pig in the back room. They had been using the blood as an ingredient in a smoothie. Needless to say, I shut them down.”
Do You Know Where Your Chef’s Hands Have Been?
“I’ve seen horrible things. Cooks walking out of the bathroom still wearing their rubber gloves. Roach infestations in soft serve machines, kitchens on the outside of the building, countless restaurants with non-functioning dishwashers, insane stupidity on the cook line (‘I don’t wash my knives because it makes them dull’). Raw sewage backing up from the drains. I could go on forever. I’ve seen everything.”
That Poor Mama Mouse
“The dual combo of mouse and roach infestations are usually the worst, as their urine and feces are usually the most unsanitary part of the equation.
Or the triple whammy with rats on the exterior. Nasty characters, but they tend to stay outside (or in basements).
One of my first restaurants had such an infestation. A mouse had been stuck in a trap (under a dining room booth) and had eaten the brains of her young to stay alive. The corpses (numerous adults plus young) were hallowed shells, the maggots had cleaned them out.
The roach infestation was contained in the moist and warm kitchen, where the food was made.
The most common issue I came across was insufficient cleaning and dilapidated structures. When it comes to pests in a restaurant, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ but a matter of ‘how many.'”
Walk-In Coolers Should Never Get That Warm!
“I’m going on 10 years as an inspector. Most dangerous is usually not the most disgusting. I’ve seen entire walk-in coolers with temperatures between 55 and 60 degrees, and the staff didn’t even notice anything wrong. I’ve seen piles of mice that died getting stuck in the grease behind the fryer. I’ve seen staff throwing raw burgers on the grill then making a salad right after. I’ve seen squirrels and birds roaming freely inside a bread manufacturer. The stereotypes are true, Chinese restaurant kitchens are almost always filthy.
Most common critical violation: Dish machine not sanitizing properly.
Chains are generally clean. They have corporate guidelines and procedures written, they train their employees on those procedures, and many have their own private inspectors. New restaurants tend to stay nice for a long time; they are made to be easy to clean with stainless everything.
Generally, the worst ones are mom and pop places that have been around forever. They don’t understand the health code, have old, poorly maintained equipment, can’t spend money to fix issues, untrained staff, etc.”
A Health Inspector’s Worst Nightmare
“My old job would fail an inspection immediately.
-We had a serious mold problem. Black mold. Mold permanently stuck to the shelves in the freezer to the point where you’d have to hold your breath when you went into the freezer because it smelled so bad.
-Cockroach problem. One day my ex-coworker moved some dishes in the back and found quite a few dead roaches all piled up in a bowl. They also managed to get to the front. I remember my ex-boss trying to get one that was crawling behind the coffee pots before the customers saw it.
-No expiration dates on anything. Almost daily, we would find something that smelled bad and was molding.
-My ex-boss’s 90-year-old father would come in and pick at our vegetables with his bare hands. One time, we thought our coleslaw needed more sugar so he put it in, then he taste-tested it. He put the fork in his mouth and back into the big container of coleslaw. Three times.
-My ex-boss’s father also picked up a piece of lox (smoked salmon) that my ex-coworker dropped on the floor and put it back into the container. It was covered in dirt and crumbs, everything. I couldn’t believe it.
-One time, our cooler stopped working. The temperature inside was 80 degrees, and my ex-boss told us to keep the fish and serve it to customers. He also told us to serve past expiration date cabbage to customers as well, it even smelled horrible.
-We used these Tupperware containers to make eggs. We were instructed not to wash them with soap, so we rinsed them with hot water and that was it. They were always slimy and gross.
What a horrible job that was. I was floored when I saw a health code certificate there from 2010. That place hasn’t been cleaned in 20 years, my ex-boss must have an in with somebody or is paying somebody.
I probably should report that place but I’m not sure exactly how to go about doing it.”
They Stored Raw Meat Where?
“I’ve been inspecting in Texas for six years now. Once, I was investigating a complaint made by a neighbor of a Mexican Meat Market. The neighbor said the business was storing meat on the roof. I went up there to check it out, and there were a couple hundred pounds of meat, just sunbathing and getting pecked/crapped on by birds. It was crazy. The dumpster got filled with meat covered in bleach that day. It’s called ‘denaturing.’ It’s a technique used at the inspector’s discretion, usually, if you don’t trust the operator to leave the food in the trash.”
Open The Proofer With Care
“Past food safety inspector here. I was inspecting a pizza place. They used a ‘proofer’ to prepare the dough (think a big, warm, humid cabinet). I opened it up and a million flies flew out. I closed the door and looked through the glass. Someone had left a tray of dough in the proofer for a long time. The tray was filled with what seemed like a billion maggots. The dough had obviously been turned to liquid at this time. The manager of the store tried to convince me the dough was left overnight.”
Shut It Down!
“I was a health inspector for about two years in a super popular East Coast beach town. Here are some highlights:
-I shut down a Chinese restaurant after I inspected them and found chicken sitting out at room temperature. I made them throw it away but came back minutes later to see that the chicken had been taken out of the dumpster and now being cooked with.
-I shut down another restaurant (super popular late night joint) after discovering their walk-in was hovering around 70 degrees. I noticed a block of cheese that looked like a big green football where they had cut pieces of cheese out from the inside to avoid the mold.
-I shut down a restaurant (Steelers bar – Go Ravens) after I went in and they had been without water for three days (according to their staff), had no hand soap anywhere in the building, and only one of their refrigerators was within temperature.
-I shut down another restaurant after I caught the wasted cook peeing in the drain in the steam room, as opposed to using the bathroom.
-I was fighting with another restaurant over them placing a food prep station in an unfinished room. When I inspected a second time, the table wasn’t there, but I found a sign of stuff for them to do that they had forgotten to put away which said, ‘Put station away when health inspector comes, then replace when he leaves.’
-One of my favorites was the knife-wielding sushi chef yelling at me while shaking his knife after I caught him substituting tilapia for red snapper.”
That “Authentic” Mexican Restaurant Probably Isn’t Worth A Visit
“One time when I was inspecting a Mexican restaurant (you know, that nasty looking place that everyone goes to because it’s ‘authentic’). I was looking through their dry storage room, and there was a huge cockroach nest in their rice. It was one of those 100-pound bags, but there was a hole in the bottom. When I went to move it to look behind at the rest of their shelving, 70 thumb-sized roaches fell on my feet, scrambling all over the floor and my pants.
Safe to say, I took a long shower and they did not pass inspection.”
Even After All They Found, They Still Only Gave The Store A “Warning”
“I was working for the local Public Health Department, and it was my turn to shadow a food inspector. We went to a corner store-turned grocery store in North Philly that was filthy. First, we went to the back, their raw chicken and meat were just sitting out on the counter in an old, rusty baking pan. Then all of their dairy was WAY below temperature. The worst part, we walked upstairs because that’s where the bathroom was and it was just filled with mold, bugs (ALL OF THEM) and rat poop. After inspecting some of the chips (Doritos, Cheetos, Fritos), we saw there were holes in all of them from rats and mice eating the bottom of the bags. The guy gave them a ’30 day warning.'”
People Store Fish In The Oddest Places
“The most traumatic ones are always the things you don’t expect.
-Someone was slaughtering a goat in the alley behind a restaurant.
-A walk-in cooler filled with meat that was holding at a temperature of 60 degrees.
-I saw roaches falling on to my arm when I got paper towels from the dispenser.
-I found a pair of lady’s underwear on the prep top.
-Drying fish on the top of a minivan in the parking lot and raw fish in the ice machine.
I also do hazmats in my job. We got a call about blood in a creek, so we went to investigate. Sure enough, the creek was red, so we followed it back to the outfall, looked at our map, and checked the storm drains connected to it. It turned out there was a Chinese place dumping old sweet and sour sauce into the storm drain.”
Health Inspectors See What Can’t Be Unseen
“One thing to keep in mind is that most of the time, health inspectors oversee more than restaurants; we also inspect swimming pools, spas, landfills, septic systems, underground storage tanks, etc.
-I’ve had a woman ask me to remove a dead opossum from a spa so she could play with her infant in it (the spa).
-I’ve closed restaurants and posted bright red signs signaling to the public that the place is closed, explained to them about how all of the food is spoiled due to no refrigeration, and that there are cockroaches everywhere, and they still beg to eat there.
-A co-worker found a rat in a deep fryer that was in use.
-Most hot water dispensers have slime growing in them.
-Virtually every Indian restaurant is shut down yearly for a roach infestation.
-Almost no one safely or correctly thaws meat.
I see so much stuff that I can’t even.”
Their New Restaurant Was Smelly, Poorly Run, And Absolutely Filthy
“The company that my restaurant is under does mandatory health inspections monthly and, in extreme cases, every three days. Anyway, my restaurant was known for having excellent scores for years. One day, a couple of the head honchos from corporate shot me an email about a month ago asking for a meeting. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m getting a promotion!’
Fast forward to the meeting, they asked me to take over this other restaurant that had been having major issues with safety and sanitation. I agreed because I was seeing a big fat bonus and promotion for fixing this place.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. I walked in the back entrance to my new restaurant and immediately smelt rotting food with a hint of vomit. I was going to do an inspection after I met the crew but after that smell, I decided to begin immediately. I took a walk to the dish room and found dirty dishes mixed with clean dishes, mold growing on the walls behind the dish rack, and a broken sanitizer dispenser.
I continued my walk into the walk-in, found mold growing in the walk-in, food expired weeks ago, raw food sitting above the cooked food, food stuck in the cracks of the tile. I found about four inches of ice build up in the freezer and gluten-free bread sitting on whole wheat.
I was beyond ticked upon leaving the walk-ins and headed straight to the kitchen. This was where I lost it. Nobody was wearing gloves, the once white walls were covered in weeks of food build up, the can opener was rusted, the prep sink drain had maggots in it, raw food was just sitting at a prep station with no worker present and without a time label, cutting boards were broken and still being used (incorrectly, might I add), temperatures weren’t being recorded, the cold rail was a flipping disgusting mess, and I could go on.
I called the head honchos and told them I wanted to close the location for at least a week to clean and fix this place. They gave me three days to do it. So I closed the restaurant that same day before we opened and tore them a new butthole. We ended up spending all three days working 12-15 hours a day deep cleaning everything.
Currently, the restaurant is in a lot better shape and can pass a health audit. I’m still working on teaching the crew good habits.
Since then, only four employees are left of the original 28. They were either quit, were terminated, or were arrested. I have hired 16 EXPERIENCED employees to take their positions and used the money that I saved on not hiring eight more on giving the employees a higher hourly wage.
We received a 95/100 on our last corporate health audit and there were no violations in the state inspection. I have made contracts with local businesses (plumbers, general maintenance, electricians) that have made it easier and cheaper to get our stuff repaired.
Last week, I was offered a promotion out of the corporate office, so it was all worth it.”
Watch Where They Put Those Gloves!
“I can’t say that I have seen something specifically that made my blood run cold as an inspector. However, I will tell you that there is an astonishing number of people that don’t wash their hands. Also, be on the lookout for food employees wearing gloves when they are not actually handling food. The likelihood is that they will not change gloves when they should be. Like, you know, after using the restroom.
I always tell everyone that eating out is a calculated risk. Food-borne illness can come from dirty or clean restaurants. My duty as a sanitarian is to ensure that procedures are being followed when I am not in the facility. I don’t leave a facility until critical violations are corrected.
I don’t eat out at mom and pop restaurants, especially Mexican restaurants.
It’s the way that the food is handled. The products are usually cooked in bulk the night before, placed in bulk containers, and then placed in the walk-in without temperature monitoring of the cooling process. This is an optimal way to have uncontrolled microorganism growth that will subsequently produce toxins that cannot be cooked out. Thankfully, I have gotten multiple facilities in my jurisdiction to just place the products in smaller pans and put it in the freezer.”
Even After They Were Taken To Court, This Restaurant Refused To Clean
“I once inspected a popular Yum Cha restaurant. The kitchen was filthy, the deep fryer hadn’t been cleaned, and grime and grease was caked onto everything. The cool room was stacked to past capacity with no food separation. Garbage was piled up in a corner. They stored fish and meat hanging on wires out the back in the carpark with flies buzzing around them. The chopping boards were covered with dried blood, sauces, and food remains.
The place was disgusting, but we needed an airtight case to shut the place down. We would send out a letter with photographic proof and a list of issues that required immediate attention.
I etched my name and the date in the grime on the floor under the deep fryers and taken a photo. Over the next week, I went back, visited, and got photos of my name and date slowly being covered by more grease and grime until it was indistinguishable from the rest of the filth covered floor.
We took them to court and got three prosecutions out of it. They lawyered up, and the lawyer said they had cleaned. Our lawyer handed over a photo series showing my name being covered up. Case closed.
I gave them a chance to comply but they never cleaned and pretended like they don’t understand English. That’s ok. I didn’t need them to converse, I just collected more evidence. Their second appearance in court racked up 18 prosecutions.
We finally got them closed down. The restaurant had two floors and operated out of both. Closing down was essentially an injunction against operating and had heftier penalties than prosecutions against the Food Act. I was sitting in my car outside the restaurant that night watching as the bottom floor was closed but the upper floor was operating as normal. I counted people coming in and out and collected evidence.
The next day, I rocked up and asked how everything was going. They were cleaning the place. They had crates of prawns and fish on the grease trap with flies hovering around. I asked the owner if they were open last night. The owner said no but his son said yes. Silence. They looked at each other and some quick Chinese words were exchanged, then they both turned back to me and said in unison, no, they weren’t open.
We took them back to court, they shut down and the injunction wasn’t lifted until they provided receipts for professional cleaners. I left that council not long after, so I never knew what happened afterward.
The worst case I ever encountered was a premium bakery that not only had a storefront but also supplied most of the high-end restaurants in the area. When I got to the council, food inspections hadn’t been conducted for years as not many health inspectors were interested in that side.
It was once a furniture store where the upstairs used to be storage and the downstairs was the showroom. This meant there was a big hole in the floor upstairs with a pulley and chain where furniture could be raised and lowered as needed. As a bakery, the upstairs was empty and all the food prep happened downstairs. There was a false wall with an attached storage room in-between the front shop area and the rear prep area. The prep area opened onto a rear lane through a massive roller door. The bakery would operate with the door open.
For effective cleaning and to prevent vermin infestation, food and everything should be kept at least 100 millimeters off the floor. Everything in this place was on the floor except for some of the storage racks which could be wheeled around.
This place was crap.
Most of the flour was stored in the storage room that separated the shop front from the prep area. The flour was kept on the floor and several bags looked like they’d torn. Looking in, I was fairly confident that this was mouse damage. The owner/operator normally followed me on my inspections, which was good because I liked to open a dialogue. It’s a great way to collect information. So I went in and the owner was right behind me. I moved a bag and a mouse shot out and ran across the floor and through a hole in the wall. I looked at the owner and he just looked at me. I said, ‘Did you see that?’ He said no. Ok, it’s going to be one of those. So I moved more bags and there was mouse poop everywhere. I opened up bags and there was poop in there, too. Workers had gotten supplies from here during the inspection. There may not be poppy seeds on the french roll.
Next was upstairs. The owner complained about me going up there because it was not used for anything, no prep or storage, but I had noticed a lot of cockroach droppings on the concrete stairs on the way up. When I got to the top, I saw it was a large empty area taking up the whole floor. There was an old mattress at one end and some broken windows.
Imagine I was Thumbelina. There I stood in my little tutu, delicate dancing shoes on delicate feet, standing no taller than your thumb. I had just worked my way up the stairs, leaping up to catch a lip and pulling myself the rest of the way, little legs scrambling for purchase, sweet cherubic face glistening with effort. I reached the last step ready for my big performance. This place was huge. I took my first tentative step.
I couldn’t put my foot there because of what was on the floor. It smelled, it was nasty and a bit sticky. I tried to put my foot elsewhere but the next stuff was bigger and longer, like a grain of rice. I stood on my tiptoes and looked into the room, and to my dismay, the whole floor was covered in rat, mice and roach crap; not enough to cover the bare floor, but enough that poor Thumbelina could not step anywhere without risk of fecal contamination.
If you dared, as I did, to walk around, you would see that the mattress had a thriving nest of rats. There were birds nesting in different parts of the walls and the best. Not the floor carpeted with droppings, no, it was the railing around the hole between floors. You stand at the railing and look down and below are the rows of racks of freshly baked pastries, rolls, buns, and other flakey crust delights.
And what perches on the railings? Birds. Birds were sitting and chirping over the hole between floors adding a little savory touch to all the good things below.
That was the most disgusting thing I saw at a restaurant.”