In the past two weeks, Philadelphia inspectors ordered more than 20 restaurants to stop serving because they failed health inspections. For most, the closures were temporary.
Owners Jake Sudderth and Anne Rivers wanted to be part of this stretch of Germantown Avenue's revitalization. Rivers said they poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into building renovations and new equipment.
But after a series of seven failed health inspections that resulted in three closure orders in September, Sudderth and Rivers pulled the plug.
They didn't have much of a choice. A Court of Common Pleas judge ordered on Alma Mater to stop serving on Sept. 15 for a minimum of 48 hours. When the restaurant got another order on Sept. 25, their landlord changed the locks.
After it was cleared to reopen on Sept. 29, the landlord, David Fellner, resumed business the next day. Fellner said on Tuesday that he owns the liquor license, and under a complicated legal arrangement, had hired Sudderth and Rivers to serve as the restaurant's management company.
"Under that arragement, I retain total control over the operations," he said. Fellner said he had not been alerted to Alma Mater's travails until the third closure order had been issued. "They never informed me," he said.
Sudderth disputed Fellner account.
"His claim that he was unaware is false," Sudderth said. "We are just being pushed out and our assets are being held against our will."
Sudderth claims the restaurant was a victim of health department "harassment." The closures shuttered Alma Mater for about two weeks, resulting in a loss of income and $2,400 in fines and fees.
A spokesman for the health department, Jeff Moran, said he could not comment extensively on the matter because the city is pursuing the case in court. A hearing for Alma Mater is scheduled for Nov. 22 in the Court of Common Pleas.
Not all restaurants get the intense scrutiny that Alma Mater received, Sudderth said. He pointed to a competitor, the Personal Chef, a few blocks down Germantown Avenue which hasn't been inspected since Oct. 2013, and published health department records bear that out. Most eateries get an annual visit, but Moran said none of the local businesses have received any special treatment. He said his agency is rechecking its files on Personal Chef.
Sudderth and Rivers also own Read & Eat in Roxborough, where they sell used books and serve coffee and pastries. It was shuttered temporarily for not having a certified food safety person on the premises in February, May and July. The inspector characterized the third offense as an "imminent health hazard."
Most of Alma Mater's early health reviews turned up relatively minor offenses. But the last three proved fatal, including citations for mouse feces or flies. Though the health department routinely posts inspection reports online, several documents pertaining to the restaurant's inspections and closure orders were not publicly available.
The eateries listed below were inspected between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2. Each inspection is generally regarded as a "snapshot in time," and not necessarily a reflection of day-to-day conditions at the business. Most violations were addressed on site.
Included with each listing is an edited selection of infractions noted by health department sanitarians. Click on the restaurant's name or date of inspection to see a detailed report.
If you suspect you've contracted food poisoning at a Philadelphia eatery or have a sanitation complaint, contact the health department at 215-685-7495.
To look up reports on a specific restaurant, or read more in the Inquirer's Clean Plates series, visit Philly.com/cleanplates.
6420 FRANKFORD AVE 19135
16 violations, 3 serious.
Certified food handler not present at all times; empty paper towel dispenser, no soap in customer restroom; insufficient hot water; mouse feces on floors throughout kitchen, storage room, walk-in cooler and metal shelving; small insects on cutting board; front door open and unscreened. Previously ordered to temporarily close Oct. 10, 2013, Jan. 29, 2014, Ordered to close for a minimum of 48 hours on Sept. 28. Permitted to reopen Sept. 30.