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Restaurants Get a Taste of Tough County Health Policy

Food: Eateries violating zero-tolerance code are closed immediately. Letter grades must be posted in windows.

January 29, 1998|HECTOR TOBAR and JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Fear and loathing have descended upon the restaurant trade in Los Angeles County as the county Health Services Department launches an unprecedented crackdown, closing eateries for code violations at three times the usual rate.

And, for the first time, the health department has begun issuing letter grades that restaurants must post in their front windows. Soon, customers will be able to know whether their favorite bistro or deli has earned an A, B or C--or lower.

From swank Beverly Hills health food restaurants to South-Central taco stands, no one is immune to the department's new policies, which include zero tolerance for bugs, poor sanitation and unsafe food temperatures.

In December, the health department shut down more than 280 restaurants and cafeterias, including two Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, a pair of McDonald's, the U.S. Post Office cafeteria near Los Angeles International Airport and a few gourmet restaurants such as Wolfgang Puck Cafe in Universal City.

"What they're doing now is closing people down for any offense they can find," complained Allen Fox, owner of Nancy's Healthy Kitchen in Beverly Hills, which was shut down for two days last month for vermin infestation.

Fox says a single insect crawling along a wall was enough to earn the wrath of health inspectors. "They have a one-bug rule," he said. "If you have one bug they close you down. They've gone beyond infestations. It's silly."

Most of the restaurants were closed for two days or less, although a few remained shuttered as of Jan. 1.

Health department spokeswoman Sharon Wanglin acknowledges that the crackdown is in response to a series of exposes on KCBS-TV, which sent hidden cameras into a number of restaurants, capturing footage of cockroaches crawling through kitchens and employees putting hands in their mouths as they prepared food.

"Everybody's been pulled off . . . everything else to do this," Wanglin said.

In November, the same health department web snared the Original Pantry, owned by Mayor Richard Riordan, which was closed for a day for 36 minor health code violations.

Joe Nash, one of the officials overseeing the effort, said the health department has simply decided to enforce existing rules more strictly.

Whereas before the presence of a single roach or rodent might have prompted health inspectors to issue an order to fix the problem within 48 hours, the department is now shutting down the restaurant immediately.

"In the past we would have a hearing, we would give [the owners] a short period of time" to fix the problems, Nash said. "Now we immediately close them."

Nash said the department's single-bug rule is enforced under a key condition: The insect has to be "active, running around." In other words, dead insects, evidence of a past infestation, won't force a restaurant owner to stop serving food.

Health department inspectors check everything from bathroom sinks to crawl spaces under doors when they visit retail food establishments, one to three times a year or when prompted by a complaint.

On Wednesday, inspector Michael Byrne spent more than an hour at a Santa Monica sandwich stop and ordered it to briefly stop serving customers because the water that workers used to clean cooking utensils was far below the required 130 degrees.

The owner, Yoshiro Karikomi, quickly called in a plumber, who simply adjusted the setting on the water heater. By the time inspector Byrne had finished writing his report, the water was hot enough for Karikomi to reopen.

"It's a great system," Karikomi said. Still, he looked less than pleased when the inspector posted his grade: 65%, below even the 70% needed to earn a C. (Restaurants that fall below C are scored numerically.)

The health department previously issued percentage scores to all restaurants privately. On Jan. 16 it changed to a modified grading system and began posting the results after every inspection.

Owner Justin Finizza proudly displayed his "A" grade after he opened his brand-new restaurant, the Under Wraps Cafe, Tuesday in Encino. Finizza said he is determined to keep his high grade.

"This can change at any moment," said Finizza, 21, adding that the periodic, unannounced inspections will help keep "everybody on their toes."

For Evi Colombo, owner of Northridge's Canopy of the Sky Cafe, the health department's new efforts came at exactly the wrong time--just as she was finally ridding her business of pests.

"I had never had it so much under control," Colombo said.

But the inspector spotted one cockroach in the cafe, and shut it down for two days in early December. The decision was a fair one, said Colombo, a purveyor of natural foods. But she said the department's new plan to post letter grades is "extreme."

"It's like having to wear a badge that says how many times you take a shower every day," she said.

For restaurant patrons, however, the idea of a get-tough policy and the new grading system seemed long overdue.

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