Updated: Sunday, January 11, 2015, 6:12 AM
Has your favorite Center City restaurant ever been closed for food-safety violations? Has it been taken to court? Or is it squeaky clean?
In Philadelphia, it can be tough to tell.
The city does post all inspection findings online, but they're not easy to find, and it can take a detective's zeal to decipher them.
No A-B-C letter grades are posted out front, as in Los Angeles and New York. There's no consumer-friendly summary that is mandatory in New Jersey ("satisfactory/conditionally satisfactory") and widespread in Pennsylvania ("overall in/out of compliance.")
Chef Kevin Sbraga, who just opened his third place, Juniper Commons, describes city inspectors as "tough." He is less sure about the system as a whole. "A lot of restaurants fly under the radar that shouldn't," he said, not necessarily the celebrity places like his, but small ethnic restaurants that few know about.
Philadelphia public health officials say that their efforts are roughly in line with other major cities' and that they help to prevent foodborne illness.
To better understand how the city enforces food regulations, The Inquirer and Philly.com created a database of nearly 70,000 inspection reports. The public can query www.philly.com/cleanplates for restaurants, school lunchrooms, nursing homes, even prisons (they are particularly clean), back to mid-2009.
Some inspectors' comments are not for the squeamish.
When one visited Jack's Firehouse, the Fairmount eatery with historic cachet, on July 23, she found foods "not covered throughout the establishment" and cheese and bacon held warm enough to breed bacteria.
Mouse droppings were seen in 20 different locations - "on prep table next to small dough mixer," "on shelves in the walk-in cooler," and even "on deli slicer."
The 33 separate violations were a record for Jack's, but many were not new. The restaurant had been described as "not satisfactory" in nine of its 10 previous inspections over four years.
At inspection No. 11, inspector Tiana Montgomery-Noel wrote in her July report that the place should "cease and desist" all operations until it met two conditions: "zero mouse droppings" and having a certified food-safety worker present at all times. Owner Mick Houston closed voluntarily and met both requirements in four days; he has vowed to do better.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health signed off, and the place reopened. Despite the 31 other violations - six were considered risk factors for foodborne illness - it did not conduct a full reinspection for more than four months. A different inspector on Dec. 9 found conditions improved, but still problematic; the signs of rodents were gone.
There is no evidence that violations there or elsewhere led to foodborne illness. Pathogens transmitted through food kill thousands of Americans a year, but public health officials say food poisoning is underreported and often hard to trace. No major outbreaks have recently been traced to Philadelphia's 12,000 food establishments, including 5,000 eat-in restaurants.
The case of Jack's, while unusual, shows a lot about how food-safety inspections are done in the city - and how long problems can persist before restaurateurs are forced to take action.
Philadelphia's health department, like many others across the country, does not levy large fines, preferring to charge a $315 "fee" for reinspections after violations trigger multiple visits. Unlike many other jurisdictions, however, it cannot force a closure; it must ask the Law Department to seek a court order, which it did 168 times in 2013. The city does not report when places have reopened - often within hours - and it does not have a public record of establishments that have ever been shut at some point for health-code violations.
In the consumer-friendliness arena, Philadelphia is far from alone in not summarizing findings for diners. Bucks and Montgomery Counties don't do this either. Many food-safety experts say oversimplification can lead to misunderstandings. But summaries are "easier for the public to understand," said Lydia Johnson, food-safety director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, which conducts most inspections around the state outside Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Johnson said her staff would handle ongoing serious violations with "a progressive response" - a warning letter followed by citations, administrative hearings, and, if necessary, fines.
With all that can go wrong in a full-service establishment, it's hard to get a perfect report.
An analysis of city inspection reports found that the average eat-in restaurant had 7.8 violations last year, of which 2.3 were considered foodborne-illness risk factors, the more serious of the two main categories defined by the Food and Drug Administration.
One of the cleanest was Buddakan. The Stephen Starr restaurant has not had a single serious violation in more than four years.
At the other end was Jose Garces' Tinto Restaurant and Village Whiskey, which share a Center City kitchen. It had more risk factors for foodborne illness than 99 percent of establishments inspected in 2014.
The FDA sets voluntary guidelines for inspection programs that are the responsibility of state and local governments. Nearly all agree on what's important: a sewage leak can cause contamination and sickness; a broken ceiling tile is less urgent.
The agency also recommends how often places should be inspected, based on the potential for risk: hot-dog carts once a year, retail stores twice, most full-service restaurants three times a year, institutions like preschools and nursing homes four.
But the agency offers various reasons for more- or less-frequent visits, and its guidelines encourage jurisdictions "to develop risk categories tailored to their specific program needs and resources."
Few places are able to follow the federal recommendations. Bucks and Montgomery Counties say they reach most establishments twice a year, but other suburban counties cannot.
Chicago gets to nearly 60 percent of its places, only every 18 months or less.
Philadelphia sets a goal of routine annual inspections for 99 percent of its food establishments and says it is running slightly ahead of schedule. Ninety-two places, mainly hospital- and nursing-home kitchens that serve highly vulnerable populations, are checked quarterly, which is more than many localities are able to do for those at the highest risk.
The city's goal for reinspections after significant violations are found is 30 business days - longer than many other jurisdictions - although the city could not provide statistics; critical issues would be handled within a day.
Philadelphia's record is improving. In the late 1980s, according to news reports, inspectors, who are called "sanitarians," visited restaurants just once every three years. Less than a decade ago, 15.4 months passed between routine inspections, an Inquirer analysis found.
The city says it would like to do more.
"While we are meeting our responsibilities with the current number of sanitarians, we have fewer than other big cities," said Palak Raval-Nelson, director of environmental health services, which includes food safety.
She said her division was budgeted for 29 full-time sanitarians - the workers trained in food safety who carry out inspections - but has four vacancies; 10 supervisors also do inspections.
"Annual" inspections often take place more than once a year. Kitchens with a history of problems are visited more often, sometimes several times a year. Most cases in which any serious violations are found - a common scenario - bring a reinspection.
Still, results can come slowly here.
Seven inspections in a row at Jose Garces' Tinto/Village Whiskey's kitchen found multiple serious violations, such as a food-prep employee's working with a cut finger, raw meat stored over produce, and egg salad held at temperatures hospitable to microbes.
Seeking a judge's order to force corrections, the city scheduled a hearing in Common Please Court for Feb. 6 last year. An evidence-gathering inspection nine days before found 10 serious violations (19 total). Another inspection one day before the court appearance found six major issues.
The next court date was preceded by another inspection (again, six violations), and then another (five), until two inspections in a row found no serious problems, and the case was dismissed July 17. The city said the restaurant was assessed a total of $1,890 in fees over that time.
"There are many factors at play before, during, and after an inspection, including the age and condition of the building, the size, type, layout of kitchen and back-of-house area, and the types of activities taking place in these given areas," Scott Steenrod, vice president of restaurant operations for the Garces Group, said in an e-mail, when asked about the pattern of violations. "When standards have not been met, we take aggressive and immediate corrective action. . . ."
Sylvanus Thompson, who oversees food safety for the City of Toronto, agreed to review all 16 inspection reports since 2009.
In Toronto, he said, most would have led to a yellow placard posted out front. The city telescopes its findings into green, yellow, or red guidance for consumers.
He said yellow placards would have gone up at Jack's Firehouse as well.
Mick Houston, who bought the restaurant from chef Jack McDavid in 2006, would not disagree with that assessment, and he had nothing but praise for the sanitarians who found violations again and again.
He noted that Jack's does more from scratch than most places - baking its own bread, butchering all its meat and fish - which means that more can go wrong. And the original firehouse was built in 1871, across the street from what is now the "national historic ruins" of the 1829 Eastern State Penitentiary.
"But again, there's no blame to toss around. There's no excuse for it either," Houston said during a lengthy interview and kitchen tour. "It doesn't matter where you are. It doesn't matter what kind of building you have. If you have a restaurant, you have to maintain it to a standard that the health department expects you to - and you have to do it for the safety of your customers, period."
Houston said he recently purchased new refrigeration units to ensure that food was kept cold enough to prevent bacteria from growing, and he closed for a few days after New Year's to make additional changes: cleaning the hood system, recementing the basement to help seal against rodents that scurry over from the old prison, and installing a new floor in the walk-in refrigerator, "as was suggested by the health department supervisor whom I have been in regular contact with," he said in an e-mail.
Inspection reports over several years show a median 76 business days between visits that found serious violations at Jack's and the follow-ups that the city said it aimed to complete within 30 days.
While quibbling with the calculation, Raval-Nelson conceded that "in past years we had problems documenting and in some cases conducting reinspections. We had significant staff shortages," she said, "and were unable to track inspections in our database.
"We are confident that where violations pose an imminent public health risk, we take the needed actions to close the facility until the violations are corrected," she said, adding that "we are currently conducting an extensive training of all sanitarians" and "plan to develop internal protocols and possibly new regulations which address establishments with frequent, excessive, or repeat violations."
CleanPlates: Searchable Reports At Philly.com
The Philly.com/CleanPlates project includes a searchable database with restaurant inspections in Philadelphia going back to 2009. About 60 new inspections a day are added to the database, covering restaurants, food trucks, schools, nursing homes, and even jails. The database can be searched by category, such as hospitals or schools, and also assembles inspection reports from iconic Philly locations, such as the Reading Terminal Market, the airport, and the stadiums, as well as the restaurants of stars such as Marc Vetri, Stephen Starr, and Jose Garces. Clean Plates also provides links to restaurant inspections in the suburbs.
The online project was coded and designed by Rob Kandel.
Read full story: How clean is your favorite Philadelphia restaurant?