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Special Report: Behind The Kitchen Door Part II

Updated: Wednesday, November 6 2013, 03:18 PM EST
Bugs in the food and mold
in the ice machine are just a couple of things inspectors found at
popular Asheville restaurants. In some cases they didn't deduct any
points from the restaurant's inspection score. Tonight, a News 13
investigation is exposing problems with the way Buncombe County
inspectors score restaurants. Investigative reporter Mike Mason shows us
what he found after paying an un-announced visit to some of these local
eateries.

Buncombe County inspectors have the power to make or
break a restaurant just by the score they issue after an inspection.
Peter Estrada knows this all too well. This past September, his pizza
restaurant in Downtown Asheville, "Circle in the Square", was issued the
lowest score in the county: an 83.5. Estrada tells us, "It became my
least favorite number in the world."

All restaurants start with a
perfect score of 100. Inspectors then deduct points for various
violations but our investigation found discrepancies between how those
points are deducted. For example, inspectors may take away points from
one restaurant for having insect issues or mold in the ice machine but
another restaurant will have the same violation and no points are
deducted.

Circle in the Square was docked points for several
violations while other restaurants were not, even when they had been
written up in the past for the same thing. Estrada says he’s frustrated,
“How could one restaurant be cited for it and the other ones not?
Especially after repeat offenses it just makes no sense."

David
Mease supervises the county's food inspectors. We showed him numerous
examples of how Asheville restaurants are being scored differently for
the same violations. Each time we asked Mease about why this happens, he
basically had the same answer, telling News 13 the following: "We have
to use our best professional judgment."
"We have to assume he used his best professional judgment."
"We're also allowed to use our best professional judgment."
"We
do rely on our inspectors to use their best professional judgment when
conducting inspections.” Eventually, News 13 investigative reporter Mike
Mason told Mease, "You've said that like 5 times” and Mease replied,
"That's all that we can say."

We also found when inspectors write
up a violation their descriptions can be hard to understand. For
example, an inspection report from last December at the McDonald's on
Long Shoals Road had a violation that read: "Dead or trapped birds,
insects, rodents and other pests shall be removed from control devices
and the premises..."  It went on to say: "...there were dead flies in
walk-in cooler and ice machine in dining area."

Mason questioned
Mease about this, "So was it a dead or trapped bird, insect or rodent?"
Mease responded, "It could be one or all of the above." Mason then
asked, "So there's no way to tell exactly what that was?" Mease replied,
"No." According to Mease, when inspectors write up a violation they
don't take additional notes so all he knows is what they write in the
report. A few days later, Mease contacted that inspector. He then sent
us an email stating: "Apparently, there were dead flies in the walk-in
(cooler) and around the ice machine.....(it) was an item she (inspector)
noted and did not deduct points for."

A McDonald's spokesperson
also tells us that violation was issued for dead flies and not for
rodents or any other pests. We are told the issue was corrected
immediately and since that McDonald's is located inside a gas station
customers constantly buzz in and out, as they open the doors it allows
flies to get inside.

We paid an unannounced visit to Mela Indian
Restaurant in Downtown Asheville and found one of the large front
windows wide open and there was no screen to keep insects from coming
in. Mason asked Mease what his inspectors would do if they saw this and
Mease replied, “Well, you would mark them for that, for having windows
or doors open without a screen." From outside we could see some dead
flies at the end of the bar and other dead insects lodged between the
bar and front window. Mease tells us, “You'd mark it for dead insects
visible inside the restaurant." Mela's owner tells us in part: "People
make mistakes on occasion but we are working hard to improve things."

The
manager at Salsa’s on Patton Avenue in Asheville refused to speak with
us about recent violations. From the sidewalk we tried to get a look
inside Salsa’s.  That's when a man in the kitchen began banging at the
window and a few minutes later he stacked up boxes to block our view. In
the dining area outside we found a dirty apron draped on a pipe and
flies swarming around a trash bin. The bin's cover was broken and the
trash was kept right next to the employee's entrance. Mease says, "It
shouldn't be that way, you should have your waste containers away from
the rear door so that they're not attracting flies." 

According
to reports, Salsa’s still hasn't corrected a repeat violation involving
insects since September of 2012. The inspector has noted: "Windows
(need) to have a fly curtain, or fan for the prevention of insects." 
One point was deducted. The same inspector went to Salsa’s again last
February but, for some reason, that "insect" violation flew right past
her. She caught it again this past September during her latest
inspection and, again, she docked Salsa’s one point.

Mease says
deducting points is the only thing inspectors can do to enforce these
"non-critical" violations. However, when a restaurant is sold Mease can
require the new owners to address these issues before re-opening. Mason
asked, “But since it's the same owners (at Salsa’s) you can't do
anything about it?" Mease replied, "We deduct the maximum number of
points. That's all we can do."

Ironically, those past violations
are then hidden from the public once the new owners take over. For
example, we found only one inspection on file for the 12 Bones
Restaurants in both Arden and Asheville. Mease says when the restaurant
was recently sold all of the prior reports were deleted from the
database. And we found that database is also missing reports for
follow-up inspections. When inspectors find critical violations at a
restaurant they often do a re-inspection 10 days later. But, for some
reason, the county doesn't enter any of those reports online. Mease
tells us, "If the public would like to see that maybe we can look at
adding that capability to the website."

Estrada hopes customers
will go to that website and review those reports. That way they can
decide for themselves whether a high-scoring restaurant has really made
the grade and whether his pizza place really deserved the county's
lowest score. Estrada says, "I can't come into my restaurant every day
knowing that is the sanitation score, it's just not the restaurant that
we have here."

A week after we began our report, Circle in the
Square was inspected again and now has a score of 98. Because of our
report, Mease says he'll also require inspectors to be more detailed
when writing up a violation so that people will know exactly what the
nature of that violation is. 

Click here if you'd like to check out restaurant scores for yourself.

Special Report: Behind The Kitchen Door Part II


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