I’m not a huge reality TV fan. Some people I live with are, but I won’t go into that other than to say just walking through the living room while “My 600-Pound Life” is on will keep me out of the Cheetos for a week.
By and large, you can keep your reality TV. But there is one show I’ve kind of enjoyed lately — “Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours to Hell and Back.” It features that giant, blonde British chef with Tourette’s syndrome going to different crummy restaurants around the country and helping them become great in just 24 hours. Next to Ramsay’s constant stream of profanity, my favorite part of the show is when he gets into the kitchen and starts pointing out all the filth. It’s disgusting — and sometimes makes me queasy enough to stop shoving food in my face for 10 or 15 minutes.
It’s amazing how totally nasty some of these restaurants are when Ramsay arrives. One New Orleans restaurant featured on an episode a few weeks ago was actually serving nacho cheese with green mold on top of it. Other than some NFL referees, no one should ever have to eat something like that, especially in one of the food capitals of the world.
The one thing that constantly goes through my mind watching the show is, “Don’t they have restaurant inspections there? How could a restaurant that nasty not be shut down?” For example, the place in NOLA had a sink that hadn’t been drained in two years, according to the people working there. So had an inspector not been there in years?
Chef Ramsay’s show has not only made me enjoy cursing more, it also has me being a little more curious about how clean my favorite dining spots are. I’ve definitely found myself looking at those Health Department scores posted on the wall more often lately and wondering when that last inspection was conducted.
As we reported last week, the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD) has a serious backlog of inspections waiting to be done, which means our local restaurants are being scrutinized with less and less frequency. We may not be at moldy nacho cheese level yet, but it’s concerning.
As someone with an eating-out disorder, I’m in different restaurants a lot and have come to know many of the area’s best restaurateurs. And what they’ve been saying lately is a little troubling — that Mobile County is not inspecting as often as it used to.
Restaurant owners have made this observation through clenched teeth, because — face it — what restaurateur really relishes the idea of having a health inspector poking around in the kitchen looking for violations? But while some may be just fine with not having to go through a quarterly white-glove treatment, the backlog is causing issues they’re not very excited about.
Looking into matters, we’ve heard restaurant openings have been delayed for months because the MCHD hasn’t sent an inspector. Also, restaurants are required to present their up-to-date inspection when re-applying for their business license annually, and some owners say they’re getting fined because they can’t get an inspection in time.
It’s bad enough to get fined for something you can’t control, but it has to be murder on new restaurateurs stuck in a holding pattern for weeks or even months. Most restaurateurs don’t business plan for two months of just waiting for an inspection. They need to “stop the bleeding,” as one put it.
To be fair, the Health Department has a heck of a lot of ground to cover. Its latest available numbers are for 2017, when there were 13,679 inspections of more than 3,000 locations. Not all of those were restaurants. MCHD also inspects swimming pools, schools, jails, day care facilities and camps, among other things. So there’s a lot to do, and simple math would suggest some of these locations require several inspections a year, since the number of locations divides into the number of inspections about four times.
Also, MCHD says resignations, retirements and changes to state code have significantly slowed the inspection process. They used to have 15 to 18 full-time inspectors, but that number has fallen to 12, according to MCHD. And further complicating matters, they must go through the Mobile County Personnel Board in order to get new ones, a process Mobile County Health Officer Dr. Bernard Eichold has complained about in the past. He has even asked the Legislature to allow MCHD to do its own hiring because of the holdup.
But after inspectors are hired it can take more than a year for them to be properly trained to the point they can go out on their own. So issues clearly exist within the system that can conspire to put MCHD behind. But many of the restaurateurs I’ve spoken with say the issue has been going on for quite some time.
In some parts of town it appears to have gotten better, although I didn’t talk to any restaurant owners who said they were being inspected quarterly.
Eichold wrote us a letter responding to the story, but didn’t address any of the issues regarding a lack of inspections holding up restaurant openings or business license renewals. It’s printed on page 4 of this week’s paper. It essentially just offers a lesson on the dangers of food-borne illnesses. While I think we can all easily agree nobody wants to get food poisoning, it would have been nice for him to also offer some solutions to this problem.
Whatever is holding up getting an adequate number of inspectors out on the street needs to be addressed quickly. If the problem is bureaucracy, that needs to change.
Mobile has experienced a wonderful explosion of new dining options over the past decade and it shows no sign of letting up. Getting enough inspectors on the streets should be a priority. Diners shouldn’t have to worry no one has inspected their favorite restaurant in more than a year, and operators don’t need the additional pressures of being fined or delayed while they’re busy trying to run a business.
The last thing any of us wants to see around here is Chef Ramsay rolling into town to expose the filthiest restaurant in Alabama. It might make for good TV, but it wouldn’t be good for business.