Restaurant owners say critical health inspections unfair
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Downtown Charleston restaurant owners and Mayor Danny Jones want the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to rein in the agency's newest inspector, who has cited the establishments for numerous critical violations in recent months.
Health Department officials say the sanitarian is doing a stellar job, and they plan to hire more inspectors just like her.
Restaurant owners have flooded the mayor's office with complaints about recent inspections by sanitarian Alicia Page, who started working for the Health Department last January.
The owners said they've been blindsided by Page's highly critical reviews, after receiving nearly spotless inspections for years.
"It's just hard to understand how a business can go for so long without any violations, and then with a change in personnel, multiple violations occur overnight," said Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, who owns Vandalia Grille in downtown Charleston.
Anita Ray, who oversees the Health Department's restaurant inspections, said Page has the agency's "full support."
Page, the department's newest inspector, received eight weeks of training "on the most recent version of the [health] code" with the state's Office of Environmental Health Services, Ray said. Page received additional on-the-job training, according to Ray.
"Because she goes by the book, [the restaurant owners] have a problem with her," said Ray, the department's director of environmental health. "We're trying to protect the public's health. The public has the right to eat safe food that's prepared in a safe manner and in a sanitary setting."
Jones indicated that he would consider cutting the Health Department's funding, if the agency doesn't stop harassing restaurant owners. The city distributes $100,000 a year to the department.
"We're not going to pay them to put restaurants out of business," said Jones, a former restaurant owner who has frequently sparred with health officials. "It's not their job to shut these people down. It's their job to work with them, show them what's wrong and fix it."
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said the recent inspections and multiple critical violations -- published in the Gazette and broadcast on WCHS-TV -- have embarrassed downtown Charleston restaurants. The owners are complaining to Carper.
Carper said health officials should have told the restaurant owners up front that their businesses were going to be held to a higher standard.
"I can't go downtown and sit down and eat a sandwich without hearing about this," said Carper, who has suggested for years that the Health Department create a graded rating system like cities in other states. "There's a new sheriff in town. They're doing a crackdown without providing any information about the new process."
Restaurant's hit with multiple critical violations following Page's inspections include Vandalia Grille, Blossom Deli, Outback Steakhouse, Tidewater Grill, Sam's Uptown Cafe, The Chop House, Rio Grande, Chili's, Sitar of India and Chick-fil-A.
Outback and Chick-fil-A were forced to close temporarily because of Page's inspections. Sam's Uptown has since closed permanently, but it was unclear whether the restaurant's critical violations led to the shutdown.
Page also has cited Elkview and Pinch restaurants with multiple critical violations, but Ray said those owners haven't complained to the Health Department.
Two weeks ago, the state Capitol food court made headlines for its dozen critical violations. Page inspected the cafeteria, located in the Capitol basement.
Ray said Kanawha County restaurant owners haven't filed any complaints against Page with the state board that licenses sanitarians or with the state's Public Health Sanitation Division.
Ray said she and a supervising sanitarian, Gail Sowards, have accompanied Page on inspections and confirmed Page's reviews were thorough and accurate.
Last week, Ray visited Chick-Fil-A at Charleston Town Center after Page's report forced the restaurant's temporary closure.
"I saw all the things Alicia made note of," Ray said. "I didn't disagree with a single one of them."
Page did not want to comment for this story, Ray said.
The Health Department has eight full-time sanitarians.
Skaff said restaurant owners are frustrated because previous inspectors have given their establishments clean bills of health, while Page finds numerous violations.
"It's hard to run a business when the rules keep changing," Skaff said. "We as business owners want to do the right thing and provide a healthy environment and products for our customers. But we must know that there is a fair and consistent approach to the standards."
The downtown restaurant owners have talked to one another about the negative inspections. They plan to request a meeting with officials from the Health Department, city and county commission.
"The Health Department must be willing to work with all the businesses, so we know what we need to do to meet the code," Skaff said Monday. "We need to know what the expectations are today, and what they're going to be moving forward."
Skaff also suggested that the Health Department offer food safety classes for new restaurant employees.
Skaff said restaurant owners will comply with state health standards, but they want "across-the-board consistency."
"The Health Department is taking extreme measures that could jeopardize all businesses in the county," Skaff said. "In order for Charleston and Kanawha County to keep and attract new businesses, the restaurant owners must know the rules and standards, and have a Health Department willing to help."
In the coming months, Ray said she expects to hire three new inspectors who will replace sanitarians expected to retire.
"There's going to be more people doing it by the book," Ray said. "We're just doing our job."
Reach Eric Eyre at email@example.com or 304-348-4869.