Reading Terminal Market eateries fixing health violations

Moses Smucker runs the Grill@Smucker's in the Reading Terminal Market. His luncheonette had no food-borne illness violations in 2014.

Moses Smucker, who runs a luncheonette at Reading Terminal Market, recalls riding a mule up Aisle Seven more than decade ago during an event honoring Pennsylvania Dutch culture. Behind him, his son paraded on a white quarter horse.

The market has since banished livestock, and in 2008, eateries like Smucker's came under new food safety rules that focus on preventing illness more scientifically.

Smucker, a jolly Old Order Amish merchant who runs the Grill@Smuckers, has adapted well to the new order. His eatery had no food-borne illness violations in 2014, the more serious of the Philadelphia health department's two categories.

Some other merchants have struggled to meet the risk-based standards, inspection reports show. They include some of the terminal's most-beloved eateries: Beck's Cajun Café (9), the Dutch Eating Place (9), Olympic Gyro (8), Franks-A-Lot (6), and Hershel's East Side Deli (5).

The average citywide inspection had 2.3 food-borne illness violations, according to city reports.

But would the city's chief food safety officer avoid any of those eateries?

"I can honestly say I'd rule out none of the businesses," said Palak Raval-Nelson, the city's chief of food protection. "Then again, I'm Hindu and I'm vegetarian. But I haven't ruled them out in a food safety capacity."

Judging an eatery just by its number of serious violations could be misinterpreted, she said. It's the type of violation and the severity that matters.

"If they had a dirty cutting board, did they correct it on site?" she said. "What did they do to fix the problems?"

All five of the restaurants below were found to have "unacceptable" food safety conditions in 2014 inspection reports, and all made improvements.

The Dutch Eating Place, a bustling diner serving Pennsylvania Dutch comfort food in the market, was cited last February for eight food-borne illness violations.

Infractions included sliced turkey held at a bacteria-friendly 64 degrees, employees washing hands in a food prep sink, black mold in a refrigeration unit, and "open containers of apple-filled dessert . . . observed on the ledge in close proximity to cockroach activity."

Another check by inspectors in April found all but one of the violations had been addressed. The repeat violation was a food item not being maintained at a cold enough temperature. "When you tell your employees, sometimes it's not going to stick," said manager Javan Esh.

When a reporter visited recently, open containers of apple-filled dessert were still sitting uncovered on a kitchen ledge.

"We have a shelf in the making for the apple desserts," said Esh. "It's just taken longer then expected. We've been trying to keep Saran Wrap over them; it doesn't always happen."

Esh said the inspectors, who usually arrive at the peak of the lunch rush, understand the Dutch Eating Place is busier than many others. He said he welcomes the inspections and views the reports as constructive criticism.

"It's a work in progress," Esh said. "They've really been helping us out, knowledge wise, telling us what needs to be fixed."

In the market's center, Russell Black has operated Franks-A-Lot, a popular lunch stand, for 24 years.

"Inspections are getting harder and harder every year," Black said. "I try to exceed their expectations, but there's always going to be human error, especially when it comes to employees."

In August, Franks-A-Lot was cited for six food-borne illness risk-factors, one of them for failing to keep food at the proper temperature.

Black said he came up with a work around, an insulated box that would hold chicken wings at 140 degrees. "The inspector thought it was a great idea," he said.

All were fixed by the next inspection in September.

Hershel's East Side Deli builds up to 200 pastrami, corned beef, and brisket sandwiches a day.

In February last year, an inspector noted how an employee who scratched his face had then reached for a food container. In July, the deli was cited for an employee rinsing a utensil at a food prep sink and for condiments being held above 41 degrees.

The chef at Hershel's assured the inspector that because of rapid turnover, the condiments were restocked every 15 to 20 minutes. That was not good enough for the inspector. Hershel's fixed the violation by starting a time log to make sure condiments are rotated.

"Some of those things are nitpicky," said Andrew S. Walsh, Hershel's chef. "But you do what they ask you to do."

The health department's Raval-Nelson explained that though face scratching might seem minor, it's a way bacteria and viruses can easily spread.

"It's the same reason we don't want people smoking while preparing food," she said. "It's not the ash or the smoke. It's the touching the fingers to the lips that can spread bacteria and potent viruses."

As for washing a knife or a spoon in a food prep sink, Raval-Nelson said a rinse wasn't enough to clean a utensil. "We want folks to wash, rinse, and, most of all, sanitize," she said. "That's the part that destroys pathogens."

Two other eateries at the terminal were cited last year for more than six risk violations.

Beck's Cajun Cafe, in the wake of two critical reports last year, has overhauled its food safety procedures. "It's all correctable," said sales and marketing manager Jonathan Morein.

In August, Beck's was cited for five risk-factor violations and, in September, for four repeat violations. On both occasions, the reports noted that no food safety person was present; the slicer had not been washed or sanitized every four hours; "potentially hazardous ready-to-eat food" was not date marked; and shellfish, milk, and eggs were held at a bacteria-friendly 68 degrees.

"Are we happy about [the reports]? No, we're not," Morein said. "But that's why were moving so strongly to correct them."

Since the last inspection, Beck's doubled the number of managers certified in food safety from three to six, Morein said. The restaurant retrained staff to ensure they know safety procedures and follow them. And stored foods are now color coded with production dates.

Olympic Gyro, a Greek sandwich stand on the market's west side, was cited in July for several food-borne risk violations, including not having a food safety person who could identify all five reportable food-borne illnesses.

"That was me," said owner Athans Voulgaridis. "I got a little nervous, not crazy nervous, but enough so I couldn't remember all five."

Olympic was also cited for not having cheese and cooked chicken above 45 degrees and having black residue and pink slime inside an ice bin. Voulgaridis said both violations were immediately addressed.

On a follow-up visit, Olympic was cited for only one risk-factor violation, for an employee using bleach to clean cooking equipment. Said Raval-Nelson, "Soap negates the effects of the chlorine bleach."

"This is all stuff I needed to know," said Voulgaridis. "We're limited in space, so we do the best with what we have. The inspectors understand that. They've been fair. They're just doing their job."

  And Moses Smucker's grill? How does he keep the inspectors at bay?

Smucker pointed to his wife of 42 years, Suzy.

"She stays on top of things," Smucker said. "When she cleans, she cleans it right."


For a database of restaurant inspections in Philadelphia, with links to those in suburban counties, visit philly.com/cleanplates.


samwood@phillynews.com

215-854-2796

@samwoodiii