Special Report: Behind The Kitchen Door Part I
Black mold, cross-contamination and bugs found in the food, these are just a few of the violations we uncovered at popular restaurants in Asheville but that won't keep them from getting an "A" grade from county inspectors.
News 13's investigative reporter Mike Mason has this Reality Check on what's really going on behind the kitchen door
Peter Estrada has owned "Circle in the Square pizza restaurant in Downtown Asheville for the past 10 years. It's a small business supported by local customers. Estrada says things were going great until just recently when the tables turned against him. This past September, a Buncombe County food inspector gave his restaurant a score of 83.5, which is considered a B-minus. That's the lowest score in the entire county.
Estrada remembers how he felt when the inspector issued the rating saying, "It was kind of staggering to know it was the lowest score, it was a wake-up call, obviously, but it was a shock because throughout my 10 years of running restaurants in Asheville I've had an average score of about 95."
A perfect score is 100 and anything with a 90 or above is considered an "A" grade. Currently, all restaurants in Buncombe County either have a grade of "A" or "B" and none have been issued a "C" grade or below. Most of the points deducted from Estrada's restaurant were for technical issues such as not having his paperwork in order. Other violations included not having food containers labeled properly, missing a required food thermometer and using a piece of cardboard to replace a broken cover to the ice machine. So does that low score mean his pizza place is the dirtiest restaurant in town? Not according to Estrada, "I would say it's unfair and I need to be judged on the same criteria every other restaurant is judged."
We decided to see how inspectors judged other restaurants in Asheville. David Mease supervises county food inspectors and tells us, "When they're doing an inspection we look at one, where it's re-occurring and two, the severity of it."
We checked out Homegrown, a popular local restaurant on Merrimon Avenue. Last month they received a score of 95. Inspectors noted they did not have food containers properly labeled. In fact, Homegrown was cited for this twice during their last 3 inspections but each time the inspector did not deduct any points.
Circle in the Square, however, was written up for that same violation this past September and the inspector deducted one point. Estrada says, "Obviously I don't feel it's fair."
News 13s investigative reporter Mike Mason asked Mease, "Is that fair?"
Mease replied, "You know, I wasn't there and we rely on our staff to use their best professional judgment when they're in the field."
This past March, an inspector also noted Homegrown was in violation for having: "Food stored below exposed sewer lines in the basement".
We asked Mease about this and he said, "That doesn't mean that there was sewage dripping onto the food what it means is that our rules prohibit food from being stored below exposed sewer lines."
Mason continued to question Mease asking, "But it's cited because it could drip, it could happen. Otherwise it wouldn't be there right?" Mease then replied, "Correct, correct."
Homegrown's owner tells us the line wasn't active and has since been capped off.
Mela Indian Restaurant on North Lexington avenue received a score of 96.5 last month. During their last 3 inspections, Mela was written up for not having food containers labeled properly. Each time no points were deducted. Estrada says he doesn't understand why he was docked one point for the same thing, "How could one restaurant be cited for it and the other ones not? Especially after repeat offenses, it just makes no sense."
Mease admits, "I can see where they could think they're being picked on possibly but I was not there to witness the inspection in either of these cases."
This past May, an inspector also noted: "The ice machine (at Mela) is in need of cleaningthere is black mold in contact with the water and ice." Again, no points were deducted. Mela's owner, Catherine Cambron gave us the following statement: "This is a challenging business and local businesses are good for our community. We have healthy and good food and we are proud of our score. People make mistakes on occasion and we work hard to improve things."
Sunny Point Caf on Haywood Road in Asheville received an "A" grade on their last 3 inspections but the manager didn't want to talk to us about them. Sunny Point's latest inspection was last September when an inspector noted the restaurant must: "Clean and sanitize the ice machine frequently to prevent mold growth." No points were deducted even though that same violation was noted back in June.
According to Mease, mold isnt a major concern saying, "I am not aware of a food-borne illness linked to mold or pink slime growing in an ice machine." We also found Sunny Point was cited for having a problem with flies during their last 3 inspections.
In September, an inspector warned the restaurant: "Do not place fly strips over food or food prep areas." One point was deducted. We found the restaurant had a point deducted for fly violations in all 3 of their last inspections. In June, the inspector wrote Sunny Point must make sure: "Dead insects and insect fragments are prevented from..falling on exposed food."
Mason asked Mease, "So fly strips over food prep areas, you're just going to get one point and that's it? Mease replied, "I was not there to witness the inspection."
Salsas Restaurant on Patton Avenue in Asheville has also maintained an "A" grade, scoring a "93" last September. When we tried to question the manager he replied, We're going to do no comment." During Salsa's last inspection the manager was warned to: "Clean (the) diaper changing table immediately. Debris from ??? was on it." No points were deducted for this but Mease tells us, "Points should be deducted. When asked why they werent he replied, It may have been the first time they saw that problem."
The inspector did take off one and a half points after finding: "Pink mold on the shield" of the ice machine. This was listed as a repeat violation. Another repeat violation was noted, stating: "Windows (must) havefly curtain, fan for prevention of insects." We found inspectors have been citing Salsas for more than a year for that same violation and each time they only deducted one point.
Mason asked Mease about this, "So even though it shows up on the last several inspections there's no enforcement?" Mease contends, "The enforcement is deducting the points on the inspection report."
Click here if you'd like to check out restaurant scores for yourself.