Reservations Recommended

Dirty dishes. Spoiled food. Cockroaches roaming the kitchen. At some local restaurants the proof is in the pudding -- literally.

"We want to work with the industry," emphasizes district administrator Kita in his Northwest Dade office. "We want to give restaurants a chance to come into compliance. We're not here only for the public health standpoint; we're also here because the industry wants us to be here as a watchdog. It's about tourism."

Kita maintains the 1993 printout is inaccurate and that some restaurants were inspected four times last year. He attributes the discrepancies to computer glitches and an ongoing manpower problem. "Through 1993 I had a lack of personnel," he explains. "I just recently in July had all my areas filled, and now I'm down three people again." Kita adds that three of his 33 inspectors in Dade and Monroe counties either have retired or been transferred. "I'd be the first one to admit that we didn't see all our inspections," he concedes.

Hiring new inspectors hasn't been so easy, Kita kvetches. Job requirements include a bachelor's degree with a major course of study in fields such as the physical or natural sciences, engineering, or hotel management, plus one year's experience in the field or a master's degree. Starting salaries are slightly less than $22,000. Inspectors are required to complete an average of five inspections per day of restaurants, hotels, and motels. In addition, each inspector is responsible for issuing operating licenses and investigating complaints. The average workload: 400 restaurants and lodging facilities per year.

Veteran inspectors say the work expectations are unrealistic. Roosevelt Franklin has been inspecting restaurants for fourteen years, tooling between upscale Bal Harbour and mom-and-pop cafeterias in North Miami. Only if he's lucky, Franklin sighs, can he complete more than the minimum five inspections per day.

On a recent morning, Franklin pulls into the parking lot of a popular waterfront megarestaurant. (The manager agreed to allow a reporter on the premises on the condition that the restaurant not be named.) A dignified-looking man in a silver-blue guayabera, Franklin looks as if he'd feel more at home rocking on a porch, sipping ice tea, and reading to his grandchildren than picking his way among the smelly detritus at the back of a restaurant.

His inspection begins behind the restaurant, where several Dumpsters are stored near a loading dock. "Okay," he says, thinking out loud, "we need to clean this." Franklin taps the side of a contraption used to clean garbage cans. "You smell that odor?" he asks. "That's because they're not cleaning it every day." Flies swarm as Franklin scribbles down the violation. As he writes, the sickly stench of last night's dinner rises from exposed garbage and expands in the warm air. The open Dumpster lids merit another two violations, but Franklin eyes an employee who suddenly has begun to straighten up the garbage area, and decides to give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt.

Next he checks the walk-in refrigerators. The floor of the first is covered with pizza flour, a violation he notes on his inspection form. He retrieves two open cartons of chocolate milk that employees have stashed in the walk-in refrigerator and marks down two more violations for uncovered food. He considers citing the restaurant for storing an unlabeled, transparent container of spaghetti, but concludes the contents are obvious and moves on, dogged by the restaurant employee who has finished with the garbage and is now sweeping up the kitchen.

Franklin's inspection reveals the vagaries of the regulatory process. First, there's the question of time, and today Franklin happens to have plenty of it. "If I had to produce seven or eight inspections a day, I couldn't really be thorough," he explains candidly. "But Mr. Kita told me to take the time and make a really good inspection."

It soon becomes clear that even among long-time inspectors, there is some question about when and what to call a violation. As Franklin systematically traverses the kitchen from refrigerators to prep lines to dry storage areas, he makes note of grease globbing the outside of a pizza-dough mixer, mildew climbing down the side of an ice machine, murky water stagnating at the bottom of a refrigerator, grime-encrusted garbage cans, and gook puddling in the soda-gun well. On paper most these violations don't sound very impressive. The report reads only: "Clean all food contact surfaces and nonfood contact surfaces."

A cockroach scurries across the floor and Franklin stamps it flat. "It doesn't mean that they have roach infestation just because they have one roach," he comments, shining a small pocket flashlight into the dark nooks behind the ice cream freezer. He's looking for roach droppings but doesn't find any. He also doesn't find any soap in the soap dispenser where the prep cooks are supposed to wash their hands. And the hot water faucet is broken off the sink near the grill line. Franklin explains that he's going to cite the restaurant only for improper hand-washing facilities, not for having dirty hands, as another inspector might. "I'd have to see it as a habit," Franklin says. "Say I saw an employee smoking and then he came back and started preparing food, then I'd cite him for a violation." Dirty hands carry a greater penalty than lack of hand cleaner, and must be addressed immediately.

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