Health Scores Downtown: What does an 88 really mean?

BY: SARAH LUNDGREN

For restaurants, low health scores are scary –– especially if they’re in the 70s.

It doesn’t require a cockroach in a meal for a restaurant to fall short of the expectations of public health departments, according to public health information.

And just because it has a low score does not mean it’s going to make people ill either.

There are  restaurants in the downtown area whose most recent published health inspection scores from the Public Health Department of Northeast Georgia fell below a grade of 90.

New Orleans ‘N Athens, the eatery that replaced Harry Bissett’s New Orleans Style Cafe and Oyster Bar on Broad Street within the last year, was one of those restaurants.

In Jan. 2010, Harry Bissett’s closed due to unpaid taxes. As the economy fell, the owners of the store said they got behind on remitting sales taxes to the state Department of Revenue which caused the loss of their liquor license, according to the Athens Banner-Herald.

Following in the cajun and creole style of Harry Bissett’s, New Orleans ‘N Athens, also known as “NONA,” opened in mid-September 2010 with a score of 100. However, less than a month later, a new score of 88 was posted on the front wall for customers to see.

Not only had the score dropped below an A, but the public health website for Clarke County shows NONA constituted a “high risk” due to violations considered critical by the health department at the time of their inspection.

The establishment was cited for two different kinds of violations: one non-critical violation and two critical violations. These critical violations cause the restaurant to be considered a “high-risk.”

Restaurants with non-critical violations can still have a score in the 90s, such as the Farm 255 or Porterhouse Grill restaurants in the area. Non-critical violations do not pose an immediate public health threat and can be corrected at the time of inspection, according to public health information.

However,  improper cold holding temperatures and improper cooling time are critical violations because they are more likely to contribute to food contamination or illness.

As of Feb. 22, 2011, NONA’s score still remains at 88.

NONA’s executive chef, Justin Gregg, said he understands the pressures associated with a low score from a customer perspective as well as professionally.

“Normally if I see anything below an A –– below 90 –– I usually veer away from it,” Gregg said. “Granted you could go into somewhere not as nice as us with a 92 and get deathly ill.”

Gregg said their score of 88 does not reflect the restaurants standards at the time of inspection, or today.

“I told my entire staff when we started, if a violation came in the kitchen, it would be somebody’s job,” he said. “You want to create that healthy environment and way of thinking.”

Gregg said their violations did not involve cross-contamination or inadequate equipment, which can cause sickness and heavy expenses for the restaurant.

“We have a server here that’s deathly allergic to pork and a regular [customer] that’s allergic to corn,” he said. “The owner’s daughter has a soy and peanut allergy. Cross contamination is a thing that should never, ever happen, especially at a restaurant at our level.”

Gregg said that the critical violations were actually one violation hitting on two different notes.

“Our prep cook was not cooling the food down properly, just putting it straight in there, which raised the temperature of the cooler and lost us three points,” he said. “Not cooling the food down properly cost us the other nine points.”

Gregg said  the prep cook problem was a result of improper training, which was immediately fixed.

“It’s very disappointing to have that score, especially after opening,”  Gregg said. “But it was an easy fix for us, because it was personnel.”

After remedying the violations quickly, Gregg is very confident their next inspection will be much better.

“[Having to wait] is like a kick to the pants,” Gregg said. “I’ve got people coming in thinking I’m not taking care of them, but I am.”

Gregg and his staff are eager to prove an 88 is not the performance they are giving their customers.

“Every time I get a call of a visitor, I say to myself, ‘Please be the health inspector.’ I’m probably the only kitchen manager in town who thinks like that,” Gregg said.

He said people should be aware of the scores but, as a consumer, take them with a grain of salt.

“It’s a good guideline, because I look at them, but I’m privy to behind the scenes,” Gregg said. “And sometimes that’s a scary thing.”

To avoid the scary things, Gregg suggested looking at corporate chains more closely because most of their food is pre-packaged, and he also recommends looking at the various distinctions of health violations.

Independent restaurants, like NONA, handle their food more often, making them more susceptible to violation, according to Gregg. Lower scores in the corporate world are usually more significant than in his business, he said.

For the wary customer, visit the Northeast Health District’s website at http://www.publichealthathens.com for the most recent health scores of Clarke County restaurants.

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