3-4-2007 Animal House or: Would you like the salad bar with your meal?

Being that writing about local politics usually amounts to my glossy being pinned to dart boards, letís dispense with all of that and examine just how sanitary your favorite eatery may, or may not be.

From the e-mail inbox Good Morning,
Here's a subject I'll bet you know something about: Just how prevalent is the rat infestation situation we have seen in the recent KFC-Taco Bell incident?

Itís interesting, despite bidding the restaurant industry adieu in 1990, I have never managed to fully escape restaurants. After my escape, I managed a warehouse that supplied equipment and supplies to restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and food services of every imaginable shape, size and concept. And when that outfit was bought-out, I drove truck and delivered foodstuffs to those very same sorts of destinations. And when that job became too much, I got into my current line of work that often leads me toÖyou got it, restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes and food services of every imaginable shape, size and concept. Oh, and during my restaurant management days, I managed four local different restaurants, all of the same chain. And as a teenager, I toiled away in the kitchen at Percy A. Brown & Co.: Foods of Distinction. Needless to say, restaurants and myself seem to be joined at the hip.

I cannot and will not disclose any information about my current employerís many foodservice and food production customers, except to say that the company you mentioned, Taco Bell, has spot-on sanitary stores in this valley. Trust me, they are clean and then some. As to the question of rat infestations, I have never seen anything like that Taco Bell video in this area. But all bets are off in New York City. You donít even want to know.

As far as local restaurants are concerned, there are those I will never, ever visit as a paying customer. And then there are those where you could literally eat off of the floor. But I will tell you this, the Wilkes-Barre Health Department conducts thorough inspections of this cityís restaurants. Been there, done that. Iíve walked through the 2 Wilkes-Barre stores I managed many times with the recently retired Hank Radulski, and though he tried to be fair, he was tough.

Paint peeling anywhere near a food production or food storage area? Points deducted. No lid on the grease rendering can? Off go the points. A tiny gap at the bottom of the garbage room door? More points down the drain. Food in sealed containers stored on the floor? More points. 3 employees out of a staff of 120 failed to get a chest X-ray? Even more points. Iíll stop there, but the point is the guy was doing his job as well and as thorough as it could be done.

And donít think those inspections werenít important. First of all, this guy had the power to shut the place down with one visit. And the resulting negative publicity could kill a restaurant. Secondly, if my inspections resulted in anything other than an above average score, my district manager would be on my back about it in an instant. And if he was adept at anything at all, it was getting all over your back.

As for the other 2 locations I managed which were supposedly inspected by the state, I donít even remember ever being visited by a state inspector. Thing is, they were so few and far between, how the heck could I remember them at all? So, being that Wilkes-Barre has itís own health department, while the other local municipalities do not, standards of food safety are appreciably higher in this city than anywhere else locally. There have got to be exceptions to every rule, but, without enforcement, unsanitary conditions are known to be much more prevalent.

With that said, one of the reasons I decided to split from the restaurant industry was that I was put in the uncomfortable position of not being able to maintain the high standards I had come to expect, and was paid to ensure. After my local chain was purchased by a much larger national chain, one of their higher-ups who knew less than I had forgotten about managing restaurants waltzed into my store and told me we were going to cut my labor costs by 6% and almost overnight. I told him he was crazy, but within a few weeks, I was being forced to manage the store armed with little more than a skeleton crew. The customers noticed and didnít like it. The employees certainly didnít like it. And as the weeks turned into months, our standards were slipping quite noticeably and I was none too happy about it. And trust me, when you are forced to operate with far less labor hours than you obviously need, the service slips, the ongoing training slips, the food quality slips, but most importantlyÖ maintenance and sanitation slips.

Itís a sure-fire recipe for disaster, but it is was what corporate America was demanding at that time: Profit over all other considerations. And as a result, I sat face-to-face with the division manager direct from Horsham who was trying to talk me out of giving my notice, when I told him Iíd rather wash dishes than manage for his ass-backwards company. And with that, it was 3 weeks and out. Fu>k him, and fu>k Friendly Ice Cream, too! They inherited a hard-charging, self-motivated ďGolden Boy,Ē as my peers called me at that time, and turned him into a dispirited, less than motivated evacuee in the making.

The point is, if you visit a local restaurant and are dissatisfied with any aspect of that visit, it may or may not be the managerís fault. Excellent sanitation requires an astute eye for detail and a ton of determination on the part of the management. But, it also takes labor hours--dollars spent--to arrive at a pristinely clean foodservice and then keep it that way. But being that fixed hours have to be spent and variable hours do not, the variable hours can be scaled back and often result in a less than sanitary environment.

Generally speaking, I think most national foodservice chains have higher standards of sanitation than your typical Mom Ďní Pop restaurant, but all bets are off when the subject of franchises enters the fray. With franchises, the standards are set by the local franchisee, with little or no direct oversight coming from the parent company. So, if cleanliness is a priority for the local franchisee, the stores are clean. But if cleanliness isnít a priority, well, then maybe the stores arenít very clean in the back of the house where the foodstuffs are received, stored, processed and finally prepared and sent to your table. Iím not issuing a blanket condemnation of franchised restaurants, Iím simply offering some food for thought.

My Previous Life

Other than looking around and determining whether a restaurant looks clean all by your lonesome, the following is usually a fairly good guide you can go by.

Is the restaurant in question usually busy?

If the place is always busy, the food doesnít sit around very long. Itís FIFO, first-in and first-out--proper rotation of foods- as the delivery trucks roll in day-in and day-out. Plus, if a restaurant s usually busy, the manager of that store probably has more labor hours at his disposal in which to ensure proper sanitation practices.

Conversely, if the restaurant always seems to be suffering from a chronic shortage of customers, the absolute reverse is true. The foodstuffs tend to be sitting in some mode of storage longer than they probably should be. And if that store is suffering from a chronic shortage of customers, it is likewise suffering from a lack of sales, lack of profits and a lack of variable hours devoted to not only sanitation, but proper storage and proper rotation of foods.

With that said, a busy, busy restaurant may look untidy, maybe even disheveled at times, but that doesnít necessarily mean anything whereas food safety is concerned. If every employee in the building has all that they can handle at the moment, no, a messy ladies room, or a few straw wrappers on the dining room floor might not mean much in the grand scheme of things.

Are the food handlers wearing rings, bracelets and what have you? Big, big no-no! Minute particles of food can cling to rings, get to decaying in a hurry and then show up somewhere else after enough foods are handled. Our rule was no jewelry at all, except for earrings on posts only. Conservative? Yes, it was. The safest way to handle foodstuffs under the circumstances? Damn straight it was! One of my pet peeves was front-of-the-house employees, namely waitresses, standing in full view of customers twirling their hair, or itching the ends of their nostrils. I was on that like flies on a hamburger.

Then thereís the issue of foodstuffs being dropped onto the floor, only to be scooped up, brushed off and served to the customer. I trained my people to toss those items into the garbage and start over, even if that meant the customer would have to wait longer for their order than they otherwise should. And if that order was ignored at any time, I would make my displeasure known in a theatrical and abusive manner. As a matter of fact, I once fired a guy for that, after repeated warnings, but he attributed his firing to racism and took me before an Appeals Referee at the local labor board. I never understood how I managed to lose that ruling. If I was a racist, why would I be hiring black guys in the first place? Whatever.

Look, if you go into a restaurant and any part of your visit goes awry, most capable restaurant managers will be eager to fix whatever it is that you object to. But, if you call that manager over to your table only to launch into a diatribe, good luck. Much like road rage, maybe heíll take that steak back to the kitchen and do a little bit of food rage on it before returning it to your table. If you want it fixed, be somewhat polite. Otherwise, you just never know how many square feet of the kitchen floor he might clean with it before changing it from medium-rare to the medium-well you had previously ordered. Short and sweet, itís probably not a good idea to seriously annoy the people handling your food.

Hereís a true story. A waitress makes me aware of a food complaint. Seated in the six-top are four drunken black guys that could easily be stunt doubles for the Giants offensive line. These guys are freaking huge. So, I wander on over there to see what needs to be made right, only to have to endure the one guyís racist chip on his shoulder. He said something pretty close to this:

I know you donít give a fu>k about me, because in your mind, Iím just a fu>kiní ni**er. But I ordered this thing medium-rare andÖ

At that point, I interrupted him by saying ďRight!Ē whirled around, and attempted to walk away from the table. After he tackled me, the first thing to hit the floor tiles was my face. But after I managed to roll over and jam one of his eyes two-inches deep into his head, and after the cops had him secured in the back of a police cruiser, I made the four of them pay for all of their uneaten food and warned them to never return.

Trust me, I am not a racist. And trust me, sales is sales, no matter what the color of the skin of the customer paying the bill. But, with that said, I would not be berated by anyone who, in my mind, did not really want his problem fixed, he just wanted to launch into the manager to impress his drunken friends. And as Tommy always said, and as I always strictly adhered to, ďYou wanna fight, weíll fight!Ē Then thereís my line: It doesnít matter if people get hurt, so long as the right people get hurt. And I have the archived police blotters to prove that the right people got hurt over and over again.

I always loved this one. An overly arrogant guy calls me over to the table to complain, and starts by warning me that he has experience in my line of work. Imagine that. Yet another former McDonaldís drive-thru window attendant. Go figure. I probably shouldnít have, but I always resisted the urge to take that plate back to the corner of the kitchen and make love to that food. Who could blame me if I did?

This one is a rant, but letís do it anyway. You brought it up, not me.

Me and kids head on downtown and wait in line 5 minutes at the bank, while 1 teller tends to customers and the 4 others wrap pennies. After that, we grab a few items at Boscovís and then wander aimlessly looking for the person thatís supposed to be manning the cash register in the toy department. Next, we arrive 5 minutes early for our scheduled doctorís appointment, only to be called into the doctorís office about an hour later. Then we head on over to Bilo, and wait in a long, long line for a pound of German Bologna and a pound of American cheese.

After returning home and getting cleaned up, I head on over to work ready and eager to please my customers. And when some condescending ďsuitĒ has to wait longer than all of 30 seconds to be greeted by his waitress, heís fingering me over to his table and lecturing me on the merits of whatever it was that he thought I was actually listening to. My thinking at the time was, Iím completely used to slow service. But, why is it that when people enter a restaurant, they instantly demand the lightning quick service they never, ever receive anywhere else? I used to think it was either me, or maybe that I was in the wrong line of work. Hardly seemed fair. And, no, I didnít spit in his soup, although, doing so would have been justifiable.

I had better stop. Iím rambling on and on. Problem is, with restaurants as the subject, I could ramble on for days and days, perhaps even longer. Interestingly enough, Iíve been chewing on this idea wherein I would write a book, but not just any book. No, Iím envisioning the equivalent of ďAnimal House,Ē only the setting would be a 24-hour, full-service restaurant. And some of the people that have worked with me in the past are encouraging me to do so.

They know what a tough industry the restaurant industry can be. And they know that you canít please all of the people all of the time, you canít please the people that donít really want to be pleased and you canít please the employees that are working in mostly transitory jobs. They know what it takes to control 192 drunken customers after the bars close. They know what can happen when those drunken customers are beyond all control. And, to a man, they are all thankful that, they too, made the decision to make a career change.

Percyís inspired me. Luzerne County Community College further prepared me. Franklinís promoted me. And the industry itself dissuaded me from my chosen career.

Iíve learned many things over the years, the most important of which is itís better to be a well-paid grunt than a well-paid manager.

Sez me.

Later

My Previous, Previous Life