Half an hour before the lunch rush, the health inspector has made a surprise visit to the Daily Grill in Studio City. Flashlight and thermometer in hand, he tests the temperature of the meatloaf gravy, searches for crud under the grill and scouts the cooler for vermin that would jeopardize the bright blue "A" in the eatery's front window.
But the guy in the white lab coat doesn't work for the local health department. He's an independent food safety auditor with Calabasas-based National Everclean Services Inc., part of a new breed of sanitation expert helping restaurants make the grade with municipal health inspectors and the dining public.
Following a year of intense media scrutiny, a health department crackdown and new laws requiring Los Angeles County restaurants to post their health inspection grades publicly, food safety consultants such as National Everclean are capitalizing on fresh interest in their services among restaurants that don't want to gamble with their sanitation scores.
"We wanted another set of eyes looking at the place to make sure we're doing a good job," said Tom Saiza, vice president of operations for Grill Concepts Inc., parent company of the Daily Grill chain. "What would happen to business if we scored less than an 'A'? That's not something I want to find out."
Such trepidation is understandable in the wake of a television expose in late 1997 that dished the dirt on L.A.'s dining scene and turned up the heat on restaurateurs. KCBS-TV's undercover footage of grungy kitchens, spoiling food and sloppy cooks sparked a public outcry that forced the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services to toughen local enforcement. A slew of restaurants were shut down temporarily for health code violations, including well-known dining spots such as Mayor Richard Riordan's own Original Pantry downtown.
Poor Scores Can Lead to Closure
Inspectors also instituted a public report card system requiring Los Angeles County food service establishments to post their sanitation scores in full view of customers. The top-rated "A" requires a score of 90% to 100% on the inspection. Scores of 80% to 89% rate a "B," while 70% to 79% earns a "C." Anything lower than 70% doesn't merit a letter grade at all, just a numeric score. Establishments that fall below 60% more than twice within a year are subject to closure.
The restaurant industry has complained bitterly about this grading system, arguing that a simple letter grade does not tell the whole story. But it has proven so popular with diners that some restaurants now use their "A" ratings as a marketing tool.
That kind of focus on sanitation has upped the ante for restaurants to snag top scores, opening the door for National Everclean and a handful of other fast-growing firms.
"I was at the right place at the right time," said Jack McShane, who founded National Everclean early last year and expects 1999 revenue to top $400,000. In addition to the Daily Grill, current clients include such familiar names as Maple Drive and Crustacean in Beverly Hills.
"The Channel 2 story was a real wake-up call for the local restaurant industry," he said.
A former executive vice president at Koo Koo Roo Enterprises Inc., McShane says all restaurant chains have procedures for keeping things clean, but few have gotten it down to the science that is employed in slaughterhouses and food-processing plants. Federal regulations require those entities to use a rigorous approach known as Health Access Critical Control Point (HACCP) analysis to identify potential hazards and cut the risk of food-borne illness as part of a proactive, methodical regimen.
Making Hygiene a Regular Thing
National Everclean and other players are essentially bringing HACCP standards into the retail end of food service by getting restaurants to embrace tough sanitation measures and make them second nature for employees. The idea is to make food hygiene as systematic, detailed and measurable as food preparation. Cooks who wouldn't dream of sending out a plate of fish without a lemon wedge should be just as meticulous about washing their hands and sterilizing the knife that has sliced raw chicken.
"It's basically common sense," McShane said. "But talking about it is a lot different from doing it day after day after day."
That means identifying "critical control points" where food is most likely to be mishandled, developing safety routines to minimize those risks, then drilling employees to adopt those habits like a mantra, from the loading dock to the customer's plate.
At the Daily Grill, for example, every cook carries a thermometer to check that raw food is cold enough to prevent spoilage and that cooked items such as meat are seared sufficiently to kill pathogens such as the E. coli bacteria.
Food safety consultants such as Charlotte, N.C.-based Steritech Group Inc. also use high-tech devices to measure microbial counts on restaurant surfaces that might otherwise look clean.