Florida has only a few restaurants with flawless inspection scores, and chefs who run them offer some tough advice: Hire outside inspectors, treat the ice machine as a potential felon and become fanatical about details that others overlook.
Mark Brown, executive chef of The Sanctuary Golf Club on Sanibel Island, one of just a half-dozen kitchens to earn perfect inspection scores this past autumn, told Richard Mullins of Tampa Bay Online, "Are the Coke machine nozzles clean? Is the ice machine maintained? Are the trash cans clean? Because when you drag them through a kitchen, they’re a great way to transport waste and disease. This is something you have to train on every single day, over and over. … My first year here, I think the staff was ready to hang me."
To avoid that fate, the most rigorous restaurant operators get out front of the health department inspections. They contract private companies for extra inspections, with standards much tougher than the government’s.
"The good restaurants know the most important thing is to make the customer happy," said Beth Cannon, associate director of quality assurance for the inspection company Steritech Group Inc.
While some restaurants refrigerate soup in 5-gallon buckets, Brown said that’s far too large a container to cool down enough to prevent bacteria growth. So his chefs seal and date soup in small bags, and soak them in ice water before storage in the refrigerator.
With potentially risky items like oysters, his kitchen keeps records on every one for a year, so any problems can be tracked back to a particular harvester.
Cross-contamination happens in even the smallest instances.
For instance, if a dish-washing employee sprays off plates, loads them in the dishwashing machine and then forgets to wash his hands when unloading the machine, he’ll track potential illnesses to the clean plates.
If a kitchen worker stacks boxes of vegetables on the floor, those boxes will track germs from the floor into the refrigerator.
If a chef prepares patties of raw hamburger, even while wearing gloves, and wipes his hands on his apron, he can track potential bacteria and germs into the "hot" side of the kitchen when grilling burgers.
If a salad chef accidentally touches his nose and then grabs a head of lettuce, he can potentially transfer hepatitis A.
Training a kitchen full of employees on all the right practices isn’t simple, particularly with the high turnover in the restaurant industry.
Five Guys uses Steritech for periodic inspections, but it also employs "mystery eaters" to review each location at least twice a week, grading everything from the bathroom floors to the quality of the fries, said Jo Jo Jiampetti, a regional vice president for Five Guys in Tampa.
"You have to teach every day what the standards are, and hold everyone accountable."