Sebastian Restaurant Health Inspections: Owner’s Point Of View

A chef's point of view of restaurant health inspections in Sebastian, Florida.
A chef's point of view of restaurant health inspections in Sebastian, Florida.

SEBASTIAN – During the past six weeks, state health inspectors have inspected several restaurants in Sebastian that has drawn a lot of attention.

Sebastian Daily has reported on both the bad and good inspections. This is something we never did before until most of our readers asked us to publish them. All inspections are made public by the health department and it’s a normal occurrence in most newspapers in other cities to publish them. In every case, they are published “as is” from state health records.

On the other hand, we wanted to give restaurant owners a chance to have a voice, so we can get a better perspective of what goes on in the kitchen during an inspection.

We reached out to Chef Michele Hennessey of Italian Cousin who provided a lot of input for us to share with our readers.

“The problem with reporting on restaurant health inspections is that what we as chefs, owners, servers, managers and bartenders wrestle with the inspectors and inspections over is dramatically different than what a laymen or everyday consumer would comprehend to be important or ‘critical,'” Hennessey told Sebastian Daily.

Hennessey said the inspectors are mainly concerned with preventing foodborne illness. Thus, they are prioritizing “danger zone” temperatures and time management. This is the amount of time within the danger zone of temperatures 40F-140F when bacteria can grow at an accelerated rate.

This includes the process of cooking, cooling, holding and reheating temperatures and the amount of time highly susceptible foods are exposed to danger zone temperatures.

This is usually the top concern for state inspectors. Therefore, they need to be sure that from start to finish, all foods of consumption are handled properly.

In addition, restaurant owners and kitchen staff have to keep up with changing laws and regulations that are constantly changing.

Here are just a handful:

  • Making sure licensed purveyors are being used
  • Delivered foods are being delivered (from outside trucks, beyond the immediate control of the restaurant) at the correct temperature for their class (i.e…eggs//produce//beef//fresh clams//frozen chicken. etc.) For each has a separate and distinct temperature range that is considered safe.
  • Coolers must have secure gaskets and consistently appropriate temperatures, regardless of how many times they are opened and closed in the ten minutes before an unannounced inspection occurs.
  • Protein thermometers are being used, cleaned, sanitized and recalibrated (in between uses, which is often mere minutes); Ready to eat foods are being handled and supervised properly, ensuring the is no cross-contamination.
  • Cleaning buckets are present, clean, filled and have the exact amount of sanitation solution (bleach) required by the latest regulation.
  • Every prepared item, every day, at any given moment must have a date and time label.
  • The Inspectors check for evidence of rodents, or evidence of roaches,(which can come in in any corrugated cardboard box, any day, at any time).
  • All water temperatures in sinks are checked: How fast does the hot water reach 105 degrees? What if the hot water heater needs a few minutes to catch up? This can be a temperature violation.

This is only a few kitchen related regulations. There are simply too many rules and regulations to list in any kind of logical order. What is logical, however, are the Health Inspectors themselves. They know what to look for, how often, and when to inquire or recheck.

“They work with us. They generally do not come in looking to ‘catch’ something. They help us educate our staff, they inform us of changing laws, or new variances,” Hennessey said.

It is the responsibility of the Chef, (or other Kitchen Manager) to educate the entire kitchen crew and staff of what measures need to be in place to ensure the safety of the customers, and therefore, the public, according to Hennessey.

So, basic cleanliness, care, and safe product are what many people rightfully expect of any local restaurant.

“When we hear, ‘Oh My! ACME restaurant had 15 health code violations,’ often we naturally assume that the restaurant is dirty, or the owners don’t care, or someone there is trying to cheat us. It is never really translated to what is actually occurring,” Hennessey stated.

Therefore, once these assumptions are put out there, it is very tough for local restaurants to overcome them. Publicizing the Health Inspectors reports of the local restaurants in a small, super-seasonal Florida community can be the kiss of death for any establishment, according to Hennessey.

Hennessey also says that no matter how kindly, or professionally the health inspections are reported, it generally comes across as “Sensationalizing.”

Hennessey said it just sounds bad. “Any violation sounds bad because it’s food because we all really care about what we put in our mouth.”

She said the real test of whether the restaurants are on the up and up is “Are there any serious outbreaks of foodborne illness?”

Another point Hennessey made is that the busier the restaurant, the more violations they are likely to have. She said more customers, more staff, more perishable inventory, more equipment, are all opportunity for risk.

One thing she also pointed out is that a bar that serves beer and bagged chips cannot be compared to a restaurant that serves Sushi.

Hennessey suggests that the only way to eliminate violations is to eliminate the source.

“Maybe as a compromise, report on restaurants that have a positive track record for quickly fixing violations, or post a positive review of the day,” she said.

“Handmade food from a pair of caring hands is an art. A passion. A culture all it’s own,” Hennessey added.

We thank Chef Michele Hennessey of the Italian Cousin for her input that made this article on Sebastian Daily possible.

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About Andy Hodges
Andy Hodges was born in Annapolis, Maryland and raised in Jupiter, Florida. Andy has been a radio & TV personality since the 1980s. He has worked for WLIZ, WFLX-FOX 29, WIRK, WIXI, WKSY, WRMF, and WJNO to name a few. After spending 7 years in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1990s, Andy returned to Florida and settled in the small town of Sebastian in 2000. In 2005, he returned to the broadcasting news sector and eventually joined our news team in 2016 as editor in chief. Andy's family has lived in Sebastian for more than 45 years.