Reservations Recommended

It is a cinematic moment that can be relished by anyone who has ever overpaid for a bad meal: Donald Sutherland playing a health inspector in the 1978 remake of the sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Nervously shadowed by owner Henri, Sutherland prowls the kitchen of an exclusive French restaurant. He stops before a steaming pot of calf-brain soup and peers into it. Then he extracts a pair of tweezers from the pocket of his trench coat. "What is that?" Sutherland demands, retrieving a brown pellet from the soup.

"A caper," Henri glowers.
"Do you presume to tell us what is in this stock?" Henri huffs, eyes flashing.

"It's a rat turd," says the unflappable Sutherland, holding up the pellet for closer inspection.

"A what?"
"A rat turd," Sutherland enunciates clearly, savoring Henri's mounting hysteria.

"A cay-per!" Henri growls, clenching his teeth.
"A rat turd."
"A cay-per!"
"If it's a caper, eat it," Sutherland says, ending the discussion.

Henri watches in silence as Sutherland deposits the rat turd in a sample jar. "I'm going to bring you up for permit revocation, Henri," Sutherland says with quiet glee as he continues to wend his way through the kitchen. "You're charging way too much to be serving crap like that in here."

Sixteen years later in Miami, life imitates the movies. Poorly paid and persnickety inspectors continue to strike fear in Miami's bastions of taste and trendiness, chefs complain of harassment, and exclusive enclaves such as the Country Club of Coral Gables are unceremoniously admonished as if they were third-rate greasy spoons.

In the spring of last year, the country club was fined $1900 for failing to eliminate vermin, among other violations. Coconut Grove's Janjo's, whose 1992 opening marked the Miami debut of celebrated San Francisco chef Jan Jorgensen, was fined $1100 this past April after being flagged for twelve violations of the state health code. (Janjo's has since closed for unrelated reasons.) And the owners of Sun Inn II, a popular Chinese restaurant in Coral Gables, offered to shut their eatery voluntarily on April 27, 1994. Spurred to action by a customer's complaint of diarrhea and vomiting after lunching on Sun Inn's chicken and broccoli, a state health inspector had visited the restaurant three days earlier. "At the time of the inspection, [I] found storage areas dirty, the presence of rodent droppings all over the restaurant, rodent holes in the walls," the April 24 inspection report states. It was the sixth time in two years the restaurant had been cited for rodent droppings.

The penalties suffered by such egregious violators would seem to indicate that the inspection system works, that it will ensure there'll be no strange garnishes on your carpaccio, no unidentifiable objects in the bouillabaisse. But an extensive review of health-inspection records kept by the state Division of Hotels and Restaurants, the regulatory agency charged with licensing food service and public lodging establishments and making sure they comply with state requirements for safety and sanitation, reveals enforcement patterns that are haphazard at best.

Records at the agency, which is part of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, show that few restaurants are visited on a regular basis by health inspectors, and fewer still are punished for health-code violations. Despite new training programs meant to standardize the inspection process, alleged violations are often a question of perception. What one inspector sees as critical, another will view as insignificant.

A 476-page tally of last year's inspections reveals that no Dade County restaurant was inspected more than three times in 1993, and most were visited only once or twice. The inspection files of more than 70 restaurants pulled at random portray an agency overwhelmed by its responsibilities. While some restaurants were inspected days or weeks apart, others went without a visit for more than a year. According to Paul Kita, the district administrator for the Division of Hotels and Restaurants in charge of Dade and Monroe counties, each restaurant should have been inspected between two and four times each year, depending on its record of violations the previous year.

As Kita describes it, the process sounds orderly. Inspectors arrive unannounced, check off boxes on a form listing 57 possible violations, and hand over the paperwork to the division's data-entry clerks. If violations are few and minor, the restaurant owner will be told to remedy them by the next routine inspection. If the violations are more serious, the inspector will order the proprietor to correct them by a certain date, usually within a week of the first inspection. If the violations are rectified, the matter is considered closed. If they persist, the inspector can give the owner another chance (and another warning) or issue a "notice to show cause," which automatically prompts a hearing and usually a fine. "Very rarely do we get to that point," says hearing officer Fred Fluty. "Most people wind up taking care of business."

Indeed, only a few dozen hearings were held during the past two years. And only 24 restaurants -- of approximately 6000 in Dade County -- were fined $1000 or more. (See sidebar, page 15.)

State law allows regulators to revoke the operating license of any eatery failing to comply with the health code, but such actions are more common in the movies than in real life. In lieu of paying a fine and remaining open for business, a restaurant can choose to close its doors one day for every $100 in penalties. Once the violations are corrected, the restaurants can reopen after they've been reinspected. During the past two years, six establishments in Dade County voluntarily closed under these conditions.

"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.

Franklin runs his finger along the meat and vegetable slicer, which is caked with food residue. As he turns to talk to the food-prep cook about the importance of sanitizing the slicer between uses, another roach scampers across the counter. "He came out to greet you!" the Jamaican food-prep worker jokes. This time Franklin scribbles down the violation, still fretting that he hasn't seen actual proof of cockroach infestation.

By the time the inspection ends three hours later, Franklin has amassed four pages of violations. He sits down with the restaurant's manager and goes over them one by one. Another inspector might have taken the opportunity to make threats of an immediate reinspection, a "notice to show cause," and a fine. But Franklin knows what it's like to run a restaurant. Before he became an inspector, he spent ten years as the owner of Drumsticks, a fast food joint near Miami Central High School in Liberty City.

After leaving the manager with a gentle warning to get his place in shape by mid-September, Franklin takes a moment to reminisce. "When I was on the other side, oh my God, some of the inspectors had no sense of public relations," he laughs. Today he doesn't believe in bullying restaurant owners; he wants to educate them. "We're not out there like a police force to hammer you over the head," he says. "We're going to give you a chance to comply."

Franklin pauses and considers the the state of the restaurant he's just inspected: "It's just neglect, and nobody ever died from that. But it's the beginning of trouble.


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