During my high school days I was a proud sandwich artist at the local sub shop, a job I got mainly to socialize with friends who also worked there. Though my days in foodservice are over now, I often think back to them when reading about restaurant inspection. I remember all too well the intense cleaning done the week before an inspector was scheduled to visit, or the mad dash to the hand-washing sink when he/she arrived. Inspection, as I remember it, was not an accurate indication of how things were run in that sub shop most of the time.
Today Times Online has an article about a day with an environmental health officer, Sara Robinson, in the UK.
Every time Sara Robinson calls she is greeted by a look of barely suppressed fright. Caught off guard, the waiters' emotions are always betrayed by their eyes, flicking to the kitchen. They are trying to remember what kind of state they left it in, before the environmental health officer gets a look.
The second thing that happens, moments later, is what Ms Robinson calls “a mad cleaning panic”.
When she arrived at her first stop, a traditional “caff” near Paddington station, the waiter nipped into the tiny kitchen, no bigger than a bathroom. By the time Ms Robinson had donned her white coat and followed, the scrubbing and mopping were in full swing. “It makes them feel better, but doesn't make a huge amount of difference — they can't do enough to hide the serious problems.”
Though inspections in Westminster are surprise, much of the reported employee reactions reminded me of how I acted when the inspector arrived. Even with scheduled visits it was easy to slip up on proper hygiene when the inspector was poking around. Sure the floors were mopped and the pop machine sparkling, but the sub shop still had violations. And after the inspection report was released our manager would discuss where things went wrong, and how to fix them. Sometimes we were even offered incentives (like free subs) for following proper procedures.
Restaurant inspections, scheduled or surprise, have limitations, and though they may not represent the conditions of an establishment at all times, they can get restaurant management and staff talking about food safety.