I don’t have to close my dirty restaurant I’ll just ignore you: Philadelphia health department finally gets power to shut dirty eateries

Sam Wood of Philly.com writes that for years, whenever the Philadelphia health department discovered a restaurant with hygiene problems that posed a public threat, it has ordered the business to shut down and clean up.

rockey.meat.feb.16And for years, restaurants have been able to ignore those cease-and-desist orders.

That’s set to change in March.

An agreement signed by the health agency and the Department of Licenses & Inspections will give health inspectors the power to shut down problem eateries, said Palak Raval-Nelson, director of Environmental Health Services.

“For so long, we’ve only had a water gun to squirt, and now we’re getting an Uzi,” said Raval-Nelson.

As the policy stands now, if inspectors find inadequate refrigeration, an infestation of mice, or spilled sewage, they can do little more than ask L&I to step in.

“Our authority has been limited to asking for a voluntary closure,” Raval-Nelson said.

Nine times out of 10, proprietors agreed to close, she said. Those who didn’t were referred to L&I.

Under the new agreement, in the works since July 2015, health officials can act on their own, said Chief Deputy City Solicitor Andrew Ross.

“It makes the process more efficient,” Ross said. “We’re not growing any new teeth, we’re just moving them from one mouth to the other.”

The discovery of vermin will trigger an automatic 48-hour closure, Raval-Nelson said.

“It’s very difficult to get rid of vermin in less time,” she said. “You can’t go running around stomping on the mice and roaches.”

Though Philadelphia has resisted issuing letter grades for restaurant sanitation, it has made health reports public through the city’s website. (They are compiled at philly.com/cleanplates.) Public attention to the issue was heightened early last year when about 100 lawyers and students were sickened after eating at Joy Tsin Lau, a frequently cited restaurant in Chinatown.

  • Pat Porter

    None of this surprises me, not a tiny bit. I worked for several restaurants in Philadelphia and can tell you this:

    As a pastry cook at a highly known French restaurant, I worked in an unfinished basement (unpainted cinderblocks) with a steam cooker above (where the kitchen proper was located) vented onto my work space, aka my head. This small room also housed the hot water tanks for the whole building, and I had four convection ovens, two ice cream makers, I can’t remember much else except every Tuesday morning I came in to find hundreds of American cockroaches face-up on my work space because the exterminator always came on Monday night. It was hotter than hell. It must have been 130F in there, and so freaking dirty filthy when I started working there that all I could do was clean but management scolded me up and down for using my wages for doing something “unnecessary.” When I quit four months later they begged me to stay as they had never had such a diligent worker before. All the while I wondered who paid off the health inspectors.

    Then I worked for another venerable Phila institution, one whose owner had 6 other places, and the walk-in had 6 inches of water on the floor with no pallets and vegetables and meat in cardboard boxes sitting in this murk. I would roll out pastry shells, load them into the oven, then return to my bench (wooden, as that was grandfathered in) to find a teenager chopping raw chicken on my space. On my first day I asked for a bench scraper and the executive chef had no idea what I wanted. I brought mine from home and when I started scraping my bench, well, the stuff that came up from that aged wood would make anyone gag. Health inspectors were non-existent or paid off.

    I left that scene, disgusted and demoralized, and built a career elsewhere.