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Special Report: Behind The Kitchen Door Part II

Bugs in the food and mold in the ice machine are just a couple of things inspectors found at popular Asheville restaurants. In some cases they didn't deduct any points from the restaurant's inspection score. Tonight, a News 13 investigation is exposing problems with the way Buncombe County inspectors score restaurants. Investigative reporter Mike Mason shows us what he found after paying an un-announced visit to some of these local eateries.

Buncombe County inspectors have the power to make or break a restaurant just by the score they issue after an inspection. Peter Estrada knows this all too well. This past September, his pizza restaurant in Downtown Asheville, "Circle in the Square", was issued the lowest score in the county: an 83.5. Estrada tells us, "It became my least favorite number in the world."

All restaurants start with a perfect score of 100. Inspectors then deduct points for various violations but our investigation found discrepancies between how those points are deducted. For example, inspectors may take away points from one restaurant for having insect issues or mold in the ice machine but another restaurant will have the same violation and no points are deducted.

Circle in the Square was docked points for several violations while other restaurants were not, even when they had been written up in the past for the same thing. Estrada says hes frustrated, How could one restaurant be cited for it and the other ones not? Especially after repeat offenses it just makes no sense."

David Mease supervises the county's food inspectors. We showed him numerous examples of how Asheville restaurants are being scored differently for the same violations. Each time we asked Mease about why this happens, he basically had the same answer, telling News 13 the following: "We have to use our best professional judgment."
"We have to assume he used his best professional judgment."
"We're also allowed to use our best professional judgment."
"We do rely on our inspectors to use their best professional judgment when conducting inspections. Eventually, News 13 investigative reporter Mike Mason told Mease, "You've said that like 5 times and Mease replied, "That's all that we can say."

We also found when inspectors write up a violation their descriptions can be hard to understand. For example, an inspection report from last December at the McDonald's on Long Shoals Road had a violation that read: "Dead or trapped birds, insects, rodents and other pests shall be removed from control devices and the premises..."  It went on to say: "...there were dead flies in walk-in cooler and ice machine in dining area."

Mason questioned Mease about this, "So was it a dead or trapped bird, insect or rodent?" Mease responded, "It could be one or all of the above." Mason then asked, "So there's no way to tell exactly what that was?" Mease replied, "No." According to Mease, when inspectors write up a violation they don't take additional notes so all he knows is what they write in the report. A few days later, Mease contacted that inspector. He then sent us an email stating: "Apparently, there were dead flies in the walk-in (cooler) and around the ice machine.....(it) was an item she (inspector) noted and did not deduct points for."

A McDonald's spokesperson also tells us that violation was issued for dead flies and not for rodents or any other pests. We are told the issue was corrected immediately and since that McDonald's is located inside a gas station customers constantly buzz in and out, as they open the doors it allows flies to get inside.

We paid an unannounced visit to Mela Indian Restaurant in Downtown Asheville and found one of the large front windows wide open and there was no screen to keep insects from coming in. Mason asked Mease what his inspectors would do if they saw this and Mease replied, Well, you would mark them for that, for having windows or doors open without a screen." From outside we could see some dead flies at the end of the bar and other dead insects lodged between the bar and front window. Mease tells us, You'd mark it for dead insects visible inside the restaurant." Mela's owner tells us in part: "People make mistakes on occasion but we are working hard to improve things."

The manager at Salsas on Patton Avenue in Asheville refused to speak with us about recent violations. From the sidewalk we tried to get a look inside Salsas.  That's when a man in the kitchen began banging at the window and a few minutes later he stacked up boxes to block our view. In the dining area outside we found a dirty apron draped on a pipe and flies swarming around a trash bin. The bin's cover was broken and the trash was kept right next to the employee's entrance. Mease says, "It shouldn't be that way, you should have your waste containers away from the rear door so that they're not attracting flies." 

According to reports, Salsas still hasn't corrected a repeat violation involving insects since September of 2012. The inspector has noted: "Windows (need) to have a fly curtain, or fan for the prevention of insects."  One point was deducted. The same inspector went to Salsas again last February but, for some reason, that "insect" violation flew right past her. She caught it again this past September during her latest inspection and, again, she docked Salsas one point.

Mease says deducting points is the only thing inspectors can do to enforce these "non-critical" violations. However, when a restaurant is sold Mease can require the new owners to address these issues before re-opening. Mason asked, But since it's the same owners (at Salsas) you can't do anything about it?" Mease replied, "We deduct the maximum number of points. That's all we can do."

Ironically, those past violations are then hidden from the public once the new owners take over. For example, we found only one inspection on file for the 12 Bones Restaurants in both Arden and Asheville. Mease says when the restaurant was recently sold all of the prior reports were deleted from the database. And we found that database is also missing reports for follow-up inspections. When inspectors find critical violations at a restaurant they often do a re-inspection 10 days later. But, for some reason, the county doesn't enter any of those reports online. Mease tells us, "If the public would like to see that maybe we can look at adding that capability to the website."

Estrada hopes customers will go to that website and review those reports. That way they can decide for themselves whether a high-scoring restaurant has really made the grade and whether his pizza place really deserved the county's lowest score. Estrada says, "I can't come into my restaurant every day knowing that is the sanitation score, it's just not the restaurant that we have here."

A week after we began our report, Circle in the Square was inspected again and now has a score of 98. Because of our report, Mease says he'll also require inspectors to be more detailed when writing up a violation so that people will know exactly what the nature of that violation is. 

Click here if you'd like to check out restaurant scores for yourself.


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