After a few drinks health score doesn’t matter

By Audrey Milam and Esther Shim

 

Jerrod leaves Magnolia’s at 2:20 a.m. Thursday night, ready to sober up on a heaping pile of hot food at a 24-hour restaurant. Few full service restaurants are still open downtown, but Jerrod has his sights set on Waffle House. The Washington Street Waffle House received an 87 on its last health inspection, not terrible but not great. “I don’t care,” Jerrod says, “Waffle House is AMAZING.”

“The Grill is disgusting. Steak ‘n Shake is way too far to drive on a couple [of drinks]. That’s just my prerogative,” Jerrod said, explaining his rationale.

After a night of fun and drinks, Jerrod said that he isn’t looking to drive anywhere, especially when Waffle House is only a short walk away. Plus, he enjoys the All-Star Breakfast deal that the joint serves.

Jerrod’s loyalty to his first choice restaurant is typical of downtown visitors. When it comes to picking a dive, cleanliness isn’t a factor. People just don’t care.

In a survey of 50 late-night drinkers, only two people changed their minds about their chosen eatery after learning the health score. Both decided not to go to Waffle House.

Most of the survey subjects commented on the quality and taste of the meals served or the quality of the service provided. Cleanliness didn’t play a large role in altering a subject’s choice of venue.

Multiple people declared that Waffle House had the best breakfast, the most convenient location, and the most food for a few bucks. In terms of pricing, some, such as UGA student Lewis Payne, disagreed.

“I prefer Steak ‘n Shake. Waffle House in Athens is disappointing. They all have bad service and cold food. I’ve never had a good experience at any of the three around campus.”

There are in fact nine Waffle Houses around Athens.

Steak ‘n Shake, a chain restaurant specializing in Steakburgers and milkshakes, was noted the second-most popular restaurant during the survey. The venue boasts half-priced shakes during happy hours from midnight to four in the morning, a prime time for drunken crowds to rush into the diner.

However, half-priced shakes and hot Steakburgers don’t mean that the restaurant is performing at high standards. The Steak ‘n Shake on West Broad Street actually failed a health inspection.

Unexpectedly, no one decided against Steak ‘n Shake, even after learning that it received a score of 71. The Clarke County Department of Public Health cited the restaurant for two critical violations: failure to properly wash hands, and failure to cool food properly.

Employees were seen handling clean dishes right after washing dirty dishes, something you might easily do in your home and never give a second thought. But it’s cross-contamination in the dish room enough to alarm health inspectors.

A representative for the West Broad Street Steak ‘n Shake declined to comment on the branch’s performance.

Steak ‘n Shake’s failure didn’t seem to sway its fans, though.

“I can’t believe Steak ‘n Shake is so dirty. I guess I’d still go, though. I love their fries,” said UGA student Sarah Greene.

The restaurant offers several flavored seasonings for customers to add to their fries. Greene said she constantly craves this dish and often orders “a ton of fries and a shake after a night out with the girls.”

After learning about some of Steak ‘n Shake’s health code violations, Greene shrugged and said, “they must be busy or something.”

Ricoh Black, another UGA student, agreed, “I’d still go to Steak ‘n Shake to get my Steakburger, parmesan fries and my mint Oreo shake. Can’t pass up such a good deal. Why would anyone want to pay 10 bucks for a burger when they can pay four bucks for one?” he said, referring to the higher prices at The Grill.

The long-time Athens diner, The Grill scored the best out of the round-the-clock downtown eateries. It’s score of 93 is exceptional, but not enough to change its perception as a grungy hole-in-the-wall.

“I was never a big fan of The Grill. It’s grody,” said UGA student Matt Thomas. He said the cleanliness was funny because “it’s always gross” when he goes. “I haven’t heard any good things, like ever.”

According Yelp, The Grill scored three and half stars out of five, and four stars on Urbanspoon.

Mike Bradshaw, owner of The Grill since 2009, laughed at the survey’s findings. “I worked my butt off for that [health inspection] score!” he said.

When it comes to dining after a night out and a few drinks, does the health score truly make a difference? In this college town, it’s not about the cleanliness of a diner, but about convenience, large servings, and money left in pockets.

 

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Students add vibrance to downtown

Downtown Athens on a Thursday night is a sight to see. Streets swarm with people moving from bar to bar in what has been called the world’s best college town.

The masses crowding the sidewalks are mostly students, attracted to downtown’s 40-plus bars and nightlife spots.

Downtown during the daytime is a different story. The bars, all that are visible at night, melt into the fabric of shops and restaurants and historic architecture.

The Athens Downtown Development Authority’s goal is to keep Athens – day and night – “safe and economically viable.”

Jason Leonard, who owns Flannigan’s and Whiskey Bent – two bars downtown, said that while students come downtown for the bars, Athens is offering a “better product” on all fronts.

“I would say that there’s an increase in a better product overall of downtown. I think the clothing shops are better clothing shops and the restaurants are better restaurants,” he said. “Downtown is providing a better quality product today, which would inspire students to hang out there.”

Bars hire students and cater to students. Students spend their money where their friends are.

“You know how it works, someone recommends someone who knows someone to work here,” Leonard said. “ And we love everyone, but when we hire someone, they usually bring in their network of friends.”

So students use downtown – one way or another. But what about residents of Athens? Visitors?

Kathryn Lookofsky, the executive director of the Athens Downtown Development Authority, said it’s not that black and white.

“Downtown is the center of the community and should have something for everyone within the community,” she said. “I think the relationship between students and residents is a symbiotic one.”

Maura Freedman, a UGA senior, lived on Pulaski Street downtown for three years.

“I feel like every year more and more long term residents are moving out and more students are moving in,” she said. “There are these really nice, big beautiful houses on Pulaski, and I wonder how families feel about paying a significant amount to rent or buy those homes when the neighborhood is shifting towards students.”

Freedman said the neighborhood is attractive to students because of its location.

“Logistically, it’s close to downtown, and it’s nice not to worry about cabs or driving when you go out.”

Maura’s landlord, Lee Smith, said students have been a part of the neighborhood for a long time.

“There’s always been a rental component to Pulaski as long as I’ve lived here,” said Smith, who has owned property on Pulaski Street since 1996. “Over the years, particularly in the late 90s and early 2000s, a lot of people purchased houses that were condemned or in disrepair and turned them into rentals.”

He said there’s no tension between students and residents.

“I’ve never perceived any sort of tension between undergraduate renters and homeowners here,” he said. “Actually, there are several people in our neighborhood, including my wife and I, who over the years have been able to purchase houses around them because we knew we could rent them out to students. We’re surrounded by our rentals – they’re our next door neighbors.”

Smith said he has seen an increase in students wanting to live downtown.

“I’m inclined to think it’s going to be more of the same,” he said. “In the time since I went to school here, downtown has just become more and more urban. So I think we’ll continue to see that. I’d expect denser and more taller buildings downtown. More people will want to live downtown, but I also wouldn’t expect that to only be students.”

The Downtown Athens Master Plan town hall surveys show that 44 percent of attendees want to encourage urban professional residential growth, 20 percent want family housing, and only 3 percent want student housing.

Yet a student housing development is in the works for downtown – set to open Fall 2014. The development will create more than 600 apartments for students.

“I don’t perceive that as negative,” Lee said. “If there are more students living downtown, that’s more opportunity for people to open businesses that cater to students, more restaurants, bars, clubs, maybe even movie theaters. Maybe we’ll finally get a grocery store downtown. There will be other types of development that go along with it – it’s not only going to benefit students.”

He said most Athens residents understand what living in a college town means.

“If you live close to a university, you’re going to be close to students,” he said. “That’s the way it is, so you’ve got to make your peace with it. My wife and I, through our rental properties, are able to continually meet new young people who move to town. We have a wide range of friends that if we lived in a different town we wouldn’t necessarily have.”

Freedman said students are capable of building community downtown.

“Just because a lot of students live there, it doesn’t mean the area is devoid of community,” Freedman said. “There’s a really tight-knit community of people who care about Athens culture and music, so that’s really appealing to someone who is going to be in Athens for a few years.”


Restaurant Health Inspections Anything but Consistent

By: Colson Barnes and Whitney M. Wyszynski

“It could be as simple as an open soda can in the kitchen,” said Kyu Lee, manager of Wingster.

He shook his head and shrugged, thinking about the health inspection score of 70 percent Wingster received on Nov. 13, 2012.

A window behind the cash register showed the cook busy preparing a variety of sauces.  The phone buzzed with delivery orders.  Anxious customers ordering delivery are unable to see the health score mounted next to the door.

“Simple things will deduct points from the score,” Lee said, looking at the kitchen. “We all have different responsibilities to clean this place.”

Restaurants like Wingsters are inspected one to two times per year by the Clarke County Health Department.  An analysis of restaurant scores in Athens revealed:

■      The Northeast Georgia Health District does not update the restaurant inspection website regularly.

■      There is no consistent system for documenting the scores online, and past scores are not archived online for public access.

■      The time of day, inspector, and time of year can affect a restaurant’s health score.

Nationwide Trends

According to the New York Times, many restaurant operators complain that numerical scores “can be confusing or deceptive.”  Customers often do not know the specific policies that detracted from the optimal score.

The Times-Picayune determined that Louisiana’s restaurant inspectors were more lenient than national counterparts.  The paper determined that “the difference seems to be in how each municipality enforces its safety regulations.”

“But restaurateurs complain, reasonably, that it’s a racket for the city to squeeze more money out of them,” Forbes writer, Josh Barro said. “A restaurant that gets a bad grade is inclined to pay for a re-inspection so it can display an A, but it still has to pay penalties based on the negative results of the first inspection.”

The Georgia Department of Community Health, through the county health departments, sends an inspector to inspect facilities where food is consumed on or off the premises.

Six inspectors monitor restaurants in Athens, and they do not notify the restaurants before the inspection occurs.  The names of the inspectors are not provided to the public.

Restaurants are given a numerical score from 0-100 based on the cleanliness of the facility. A score less than 70 is considered a failing grade; however, the restaurant will receive a follow-up inspection within 10 days.

Restaurant inspection scores are listed on the Clarke County Health Department website, with the date and brief explanations of violations.

After interviewing representatives at restaurants with the five lowest health ratings, many agreed that the regulations have become more difficult.  Wingster, Johnny’s New York Style Pizza, Plantation Buffet, Jimmy John’s, and Waffle House scored the lowest, as of Mar. 7, 2013.

[Would your kitchen pass a health department inspection?]

Some of the most popular restaurants fall short of a passing grade due to wrong food temperature control, improperly marked foods and poor employee health.

Food inspections are divided into two categories—critical and non-critical.  Deductions that have risk factors outlined by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are considered critical. The non-critical categories include factors that are designated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration.

[What are the most common violations?]

Success Stories

Howard Anderson, manager of the Jimmy John’s on Baxter Street, has worked with Jimmy John’s since 2006.

“We are very systematic here. We have a punch list that comes from Jimmy John’s corporate, but it doesn’t take into account the Georgia health regulations,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s scored 75 percent on its Mar. 7, 2013 inspection.  Anderson headed for the Health Department a mere day after the original inspection.

“I went to talk to the health inspector about what we can do to improve our score,” he said. “I retrained everyone on hand washing and the basic lessons about diseases.”

Anderson believes it was a lack of training that was the problem, but he also noted that this inspection was different than past inspections.

“It was more difficult this past time,” Anderson said.  He noted that some other restaurants may not be following some of the lesser known policies.

“She [the inspector] was specific about things like needing to spray the floor before we sweep it,” Anderson said.

Jimmy John’s on Baxter St. worked to improve. The restaurant’s score skyrocketed to a 100 percent on the follow-up inspection.

Herschel’s Famous 34, a new restaurant on Broad Street, received a 100 percent on its first inspection.

“I think it definitely makes a difference [to have a good health score],” said Lee Purser, Herschel’s Famous 34 manager.

Health inspection scores are a glimpse of the restaurant’s performance, but most establishments want a perfect score, according to Andrea Kerr, the environmental health manager at the Clarke Country Health Department.

“It is unrealistic to expect that a complex, full-service food operation can routinely avoid any violations,” the health department website highlighted. “An inspection conducted on any given day may not be representative of the overall, long-term cleanliness of an establishment.”

Ms. Kerr said the food service inspection scores are uploaded to the Northeast Health District website nightly.  However, Jimmy John’s follow-up inspection score from Mar. 13, 2013 was not updated until Mar. 26, 2013, per this blog’s request.

There is no consistent system for denoting follow-up scores.  Some restaurants, like Wingster, display the most recent score, whereas other restaurants, such as Wok Star, display both the original and follow-up score.

Psychology in Decision-Making

Many psychological studies have determined the effects of extraneous factors on decision-making.  Factors, such as the time of day, day of the week, and weather conditions, can affect a person’s decisions.

“Even patently false or irrelevant information often affects choices in significant ways,” according to the New York Times.

A recent study at the California Institute of Technology determined that people’s value judgments affect decision-making.  Value-based decisions occur in the prefrontal cortex, which affects personality expression and social behavior.

The prefrontal cortex is known for the executive function.  This function differentiates between conflicting thoughts—better and best, good and bad, and correct and incorrect.

Inspector discretion plays a key role in restaurant health scores.  Local restaurants complain that certain inspectors are tougher than others.

Possible Solution

The names of inspectors are not released publically, and past scores are not archived on the Northeast Georgia Health District website.  Assigning ID numbers to inspectors could be a possible solution.

ID numbers could be disclosed on the website, and if citizens spotted suspicious score fluctuations, they could report findings to the health department.  This would protect the inspector’s identity while monitoring the consistency of the scores.

Inspector discretion affects the public’s view of a restaurant, and this system could make the process more transparent.