It's been said that if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen.
But if that kitchen is your livelihood, leaving is not always an option.
But the high temperatures recorded over this past summer became so extreme that restaurateur Shawn Poettgen had to close up her sandwich shop early on a few occasions. She and a business partner had only opened the year before, but the scorching heat became so taxing on her brand new refrigeration units and air conditioner that she closed her Subliminal Grilled Subs & More at 729-C U.S. Highway 50 in O'Fallon early three times this summer to escape the oppressive heat.
"We did run into some problems," Poettgen said. "We had a couple issues with air conditioning and had it fixed."
The St. Clair County Health Department inspects restaurants such as Subliminal two to three times a year. Subliminal was rated in May before the heat wave. It received a 100.
Department environmental health manager Sharon Valentine said summertime heat usually brings stress to restaurant appliances and air conditioning, which can affect a restaurateur's score.
"Anytime we have record-high heat, it does tax the air-conditioning and cooling units because they are put through so much more stress," Valentine said. "However, if the restaurants themselves are working diligently to keep those temperatures under control, that is our best bet. Keeping the lids on and verifying temperatures themselves when it is hot in the room make units work better. They have to be more diligent in their routine throughout the day."
Madison County Health Department Environmental Health Services Manager Mary Cooper said the summer months usually present more food and dining room temperature issues for restaurateurs, but seldom does this call for closing a restaurant for repairs.
"During the summer months, we see more temperature violations," Cooper said. "We've seen a little more this year with the heat, but other than that, it's pretty typical from year to year. With the heat this year we've had and the temperature, we had violations because the high temperatures were hard on air conditioning and refrigeration units were running a little harder."
Poettgen said this is her first summer for her business -- albeit one with historically high temperatures and during a drought -- and it has take nits toll on her new equipment. She said older businesses with older appliances had to have had it that much worse.
"My business is only a year old, but if you have been in this for 10 years and you have 10-year-old refrigerators, that will be hard on your equipment," Poettgen said. "Again, if you're not managing your equipment and your refrigerator is not clean and not taken care of and the drip pans and doors are not closing properly, all of that plays into it."
In O'Fallon, Greg Potter opened a Jersey Mike's Subs franchise last November. He saw his utility bills skyrocket this summer. His last health inspection was in June before the heat wave, and he received a 98 score. He said his air conditioner and refrigeration were able to keep up with the heat this season.
"Other than the fact that my electric and gas bills went up 80, 90 percent, that was the only effect I saw," Potter said. "I really can't judge as far as business-wise because this was our first summer, and I really don't have last summer to base it on to see if sales were lower. I do think the heat had a little bit to do with it. Definitely the energy was spent. Other than that, I think next year I will have a better idea of what the summer will do for me."
Restaurateur Eric Wortham said he has learned how to deal with the heat after 20 years of firing up pizza ovens to 500 degrees day after day. His Granite City-based Pizza World includes restaurants in Collinsville, Glen Carbon, Belleville, O'Fallon and Wood River. He also has more pizza parlors in St. Louis; Maplewood, Mo.; St. Charles, Mo.; Mexico, Mo.; and Branson, Mo.
Wortham recently updated the air conditioning in his Granite City restaurant with a new 10-ton unit. He said the heat outside takes a toll on the refrigerators and compressors inside.
"When that happens, you have to be prepared," Wortham said. "You have to have ice for the meat and produce that goes on the pizza line. They have to be packed in ice until you can get the compressor fixed. Because of the big demand on getting this fixed, some take a day or two to do the repairs. But the restaurant, no matter what, has to be prepared to make sure to have a lot of ice on hand if the compressor goes out."
The East Side Health District in Cahokia has been serving the residents of Canteen, Centreville, East St. Louis and Stites townships since 1937. East Side Health District Environmental Health Director Doug King said that temperature-related violations were not more prevalent this summer.
"We had a couple, but I didn't really see any difference with the hot weather," King said. "We didn't have anything that was major. There were some that did not hold temperature, but we see that anytime. We didn't see that anymore this summer than any other summer."
King said that a certified food manager class that the health district has offered to the public over the last few years has helped improve recent restaurant inspection scores.
"We've seen improvements in how they keep food temperatures and hand washing," he said. "We think it's due to this class. We not only go in and do inspections and enforcement, but we also have education. I think that has helped a lot."
Valentine said food temperature is one of the most crucial aspects of food safety.
"I would say, in my opinion, if you're somewhere and your food comes out and is not hot or not cold, send it back and let them know because food temperature has to be the most critical item," she said. "If the hot food is not hot, and the cold food is not cold, it does have an effect on the safety of the food."
Cooper said violations vary from one point to several points, depending on the circumstances. She said a restaurant could score a 95 out of 100 but still have cleaning issues. She said a violation can come from something as simple as a trash container lid that is not completely closed or a backdoor that is propped open when it should always remain closed, when someone is not opening it to enter or exit.
"You have to look at the violations," she said. "The weight of the violation has a lot to do with it."
Wortham's chain of pizzerias has been subject to some of these minor offenses, and he has taken issue over some of them with the health department. He has argued that some of the violations and scores have not reflected on or have anything to do with the quality of the food or the restaurant's cleanliness.
"I've had issues with a lot of the inspectors for years," Wortham said. "You can have a great operator who has an extremely clean restaurant and clean kitchen, but someone may come by and dump trash in the Dumpster outside, and for some reason the lid of the trash dumpster is open, and the health inspector sees that it is not closed and they take a five-point deduction. That has nothing to do with how you work and patrol your kitchen. So your restaurant just lost five points."
However, he also said that his recent scores from both the St. Clair and Madison county health inspections have been more objective.
"Inspections over the years have become more fair," he said. "They're starting to understand a little bit more about what the restaurant owners go through. I think that has been helpful."
Valentine said that because the health department can only make a few visits to each eatery a year, the department also relies on consumer feedback.
"Basically what we're looking at is a snapshot in time," Valentine said. "We're in the facility two to three times a year, and so for us what we see in one day when we're in there is what comes out on that score. The consumer, on the other hand, is basically our eyes and ears. If they have a problem, we want them to call us and let us know."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.