COVINGTON - A group of local restaurant owners has banded together in solidarity after months of receiving what they claim are unfair health inspection scores.
About a dozen restaurant owners gathered at Debbie's Deli and Cafe on Monday night at the first meeting of the newly formed Restaurant Owners/Operators Alliance to discuss their grievances. They were joined by local officials, including Board of Commissioners Chairman Kathy Morgan, commissioners Mort Ewing, Nancy Schulz and Tim Fleming, Covington Mayor Kim Carter and Porterdale Mayor Bobby Hamby.
Though more stringent health regulations went into effect in December 2007, the restaurant owners said those aren't the cause of their gripes. They agreed their scores have dropped significantly since a new Environmental Health inspector was hired in August.
Some said points are being unfairly docked for minor infractions, while others said the scoring is not consistent, with some restaurants getting written up for violations that others get by with. Some went so far as to suggest the low scores are a money-making scheme, since owners have to pay nearly $300 for re-inspections.
Whatever their cause for complaint, they were all in agreement that it's time to take action.
"For me, this is not about us getting them," said Debbie Cussen, owner of Debbie's Deli and Cafe, who organized the meeting. "It's about us getting together and accomplishing more than we could ever accomplish together than as one."
Debbie's recently got a score of 58, followed by a 70 upon reinspection.
But those numbers don't mean her restaurant isn't clean, she said, noting that significant points were taken off for minor violations, like paper towels or trash cans being located in the wrong spot.
A cook at Debbie's said she was told she had to wash her hands and change gloves after each sandwich she made, even if she wasn't handling any new foods. For example, if she made five chicken salad sandwiches, she is required to remove her gloves, wash her hands and put on new gloves after making each sandwich, which she called unreasonable.
Cussen also said she got docked for violations on follow-up visits that were also present during the initial visit but weren't counted.
The same is true for Vic Orgo from Little Phillies.
"My main gripe is that they're not consistent," he said.
Gwen Spears, owner of Smiley's Restaurant in Porterdale, has numerous complaints about her recent scores, which were 44 and 66 in April and 79 in May.
Spears said points were deducted for storing a 15-pound can-opener that is rusted under a table in the kitchen.
She said the can opener must be mounted to a table to use, and has never been used to open canned food, but the report by the inspector makes it sound as though it is. She claimed the inspector saw the can opener on his first two visits but didn't count it as a violation until his third.
Spears said she was also deducted for wearing a wedding band, which was put under the personal hygiene category, making it sound as if she was dirty.
"When you hear that, you think nasty - nasty nails, nasty hair, nasty body - you don't think about a ring," she said.
Andy Wilson, owner of Bess's Place in Newborn, said he was told by state inspectors that his walk-in cooler was a model of the requirements mandated by state regulations. Though nothing has changed in the way the cooler is maintained, he now has a score of 60, he said, adding, "I am not a happy camper."
Capers Hiott of Luigi's Pizza said he paid $280 for a reinspection fee. He said he's been in the restaurant business for 13 years and has never seen such high fees. He said he believes inspectors are trying to keep scores low so they can collect more money.
Attempts by the Citizen to get more information about how inspection and reinspection fees are set, and what agency gets that money, were unsuccessful. A spokesman with the East Metro Health District said he would not answer questions until speaking with county officials.
"There's no way all these places are going bad at one time," said Daryl Pickens with Sysco, a distributor of food service products. Pickens said he attended the meeting to support his customers after hearing their complaints about inspections.
Several of the restaurant owners said their business has been off due to bad scores.
"We have a public out there who doesn't get it. They're just seeing the numbers," Cussen said.
Commissioner Schulz, who owns Putters Restaurant at The Oaks Course, said she's also experienced lower scores, adding that she dropped to a 60 when the new inspector came on board but has since gone back up to 100.
Schulz, who also works for the Board of Health, suggested restaurant owners meet with the director, Dr. Lloyd Hofer, about their concerns.
Carter and Morgan serve on the Board of Health and said they would try to set up a meeting with Hofer this week.
"These are state regulations. They're hiding behind public safety. Look at the politicians that are here. If these restaurants weren't safe, we'd all be sick every day. We eat at your restaurants all the time," Morgan said.
A committee consisting of Spears, the owner of Smiley's; Debbie Harris of Five O'Clock Somewhere; Kevin Ekiss of Putters Restaurant; Wilson of Bess's Place; and Hiott of Luigi's Pizza, was formed to represent the group at the meeting.
Several there said they don't have a problem following the rules. They just want the rules to be consistent and fair.
"We're not going to be perfect, and I don't think we should have to be," Cussen said. "I think we should be safe."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.