Being a Food Safety Inspector Means Never Forgetting the Smell of Cockroaches
As a food safety and sanitation professional, I was hired by large restaurant corporations to inspect their various locations. And what I saw was not even close to pretty.
Photo via Flickr user Devyn Caldwell
Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments.
The restaurants that hire people like me are interested in brand protection. They don't want to be a Jack in the Box—a restaurant chain that became infamous in the mid 90s when hundreds were sickened with E. coli poisoning after eating their burgers.
As a food safety and sanitation professional, I was hired by large restaurant corporations to inspect their various locations. I traveled about 300 days out of the year, checking out between two and three restaurants a day. Every morning, I got into my car, drove to the restaurant, and at about 8 or 8:30 AM would knock on the back door. Most of them had peepholes because they get robbed a lot, and would see me through it wearing a white lab coat with my flashlight and thermometer. Whoever was at the door would mouth the words, "Oh, shit." Then, they have to open up and announce to everyone in the place that I was there.
Our audits followed the federal food code. We went over and above what health inspectors do—they are a dog and pony show. They walk through a restaurant for 15 minutes, find a few things, and go to the next one because they're so overworked. I would start at the top and work my way down to the bottom—each visit took three or four hours.
He opened up the back of that ice cream machine, and cascades of roaches came out. They were actually eating each other, there were so many of them.
I went through the line in the kitchen, the coolers, the reach-ins. I asked a lot of questions of the employees as well: Is there a culture of food safety at this establishment? Do they know the correct temperature for hot and cold things? People don't want to hurt others. They don't want to sell bad food. Most of the time, they just don't know.
One of my favorite things to do was to walk straight over to the hand-wash station, open it up, and put a big black X on the first paper towel inside. I would come back after lunch to see if the X was still there. Often it was, meaning no one had washed his or her hands from open time to lunch.
Once, I was in a restaurant of a chain where we also managed the pest control. I saw some roaches and I couldn't find out where they were coming from. I knew the pest control guy was in town and asked him to come out and help me find the rest. He came in and walked straight over to the soft-serve machine and said, "I'm going to go get a vacuum cleaner and I'm going to need you to move quickly." He opened up the back of that ice cream machine, and cascades of roaches came out. They were actually eating each other, there were so many of them. A soft-serve ice cream machine is the perfect place for a roach—it's moist, high in calories, and warm. That's why you always find roaches behind refrigerators.
Another time, I was at a different large restaurant chain and asked if they had any pest issues. I was down in the South, where everybody has them. I started my audit in the front of the house because there was nobody in the back of the house yet and I wanted to watch them work. I got underneath the bar, and the pass-through area didn't lift up. I looked up to see why it was sticking, and that entire area, just inches from my head, was covered in roaches. I didn't scream. I didn't do anything. I was just like, "We've got issues."
There was once a BBQ restaurant that I went into that smelled so bad—truly disgusting. We were trying to find the smell and noticed it was coming from the main stainless steel table that everyone does prep work on. We looked underneath, and there was a quarter-inch thick layer of grease. It was moving and there were flies and maggots living in it.
Those incidents were specifically related to pest control. There were others that were a lack of sanitation and education. I was at a grocery chain and I had to inspect the deli. I had to have my mouth closed the whole time because the flies were so thick. I've had two instances where the sanitation was that bad. The employees didn't know how to clean the meat slicer, and their cold-holding units in the deli weren't functioning properly.
One particularly large restaurant had a separate dry-storage facility. I went back there and asked if they had any problems with pests. I looked into a bucket, and there was a mouse sitting in it. They were like, "No, we have no problems." And I pointed at the bucket and said, "Well, what's that?!"
I've been ruined for life. I haven't done this for maybe ten or 12 years now, but I can still walk into a building and smell roaches.
There are other, less gross issues that are common, too. A lot of dishwasher machines have out-of-whack temperatures. People don't know you're supposed to put soap or sanitizer in them, so customers are eating off dirty dishes. And if you can't drain properly, you've got to shut your restaurant down. That happened down in Louisiana. This one place's back prep area was in the kitchen, and there was a backup—maybe a grease trap had overflowed. They had raw sewage backing up and had no intention of shutting down. The only thing I could do was call my company and have my boss contact their the corporate office.
It was a thankless job. It really was. Being an inspector is almost like being a dentist—everyone has to have it done, but no one likes it. But I had a job to do and whether the employees liked it or not, I wasn't going away and had to do my inspections.
I've been ruined for life. I haven't done this for maybe ten or 12 years now, but I can still walk into a building and smell roaches. They have a really distinct oily, nutty smell.
There are restaurants that I'll walk into and turn around and leave. I do that a lot.
As told to Tove Danovich