"Little things" have cost chef Karol Hatton a perfect score.
"You can get two points taken off easily because the temperature of the freezer has little bit of frost on," she said. "You get points taken off for little things. In general, if you keep the place and kitchen maintained properly, there are usually no problems."
As the head chef at GC Cuisine & Crystal Garden at 1230 University Drive in Edwardsville, Hatton has received her share of near-perfect inspections. Then in June, when the Madison County Health Department returned to the Edwardsville banquet hall and catering service for its most recent inspection, GC Cuisine & Crystal Garden achieved a 100.
"There have been times when we got a couple points taken off merely because they couldn't see the thermometer in the freezer or the oven door was a little dirty," Hatton said. "Anytime you score around 95 or 98, that's almost perfect. They will take two points off if they can't see the temperature gauge in the freezer. It's in there, but they didn't see it. They will take off two points."
In Belleville, Rachel's Garden at 3917 Frank Scott Parkway West received a perfect score from the St. Clair County Health Department after its inspection in March. Co-owner Gladys Boisseau said the restaurant has scored perfect inspections in the past. But in times when the restaurant has not, it was over minor citations.
"I think that one time we got a little bit lower score than what we wanted and we got a 96, but most of the time we're at 100," Boisseau said. "And occasionally they will say that we need to take care of one or two points, but mostly over the last few years we're at 100."
Public health officials from both counties as well as the East Side Health District make unannounced inspections to each restaurant two to three times a year, depending on past violations.
St. Clair County posts restaurant inspection scores at health.co.st-clair.il.us/Restaurant+Scores while East Side posts inspections at www.eshd.org.
Madison County posted the scores online for the past five years at www.madisonchd.org. In 2010, the county began posting information from each inspection.
"I think this is really helpful when we put violations on there," said Mary Cooper, the department's environmental health services manager. She noted restaurant owners and visitors can see whether a cleaning violation is either one or two points off the score.
Officials in Madison and St. Clair use a checklist that has 45 total different points of inspection. All violations are "weighted," or given a point value of one, two, four or five points calculated out of a total 100 points. Cooper said these include temperature of food during refrigeration, cooking or reheating.
"The violations inspectors take into consideration are what they are observing in inspections," Cooper said. "If they see violations, it's marked and written down. If it's a critical violation and they can correct it on site, they will return to check it until the critical violation is corrected.
Like Madison County Health Department, the St. Clair County Health Department will force a restaurant to close if the violations are deemed an immediate health risk to the public and will not allow the establishment to reopen until the violation has been rectified.
"Basically, what we do is if there is an imminent public health risk, then the facility will have to close until the items have been fixed and repaired before we will allow them to continue to go into operation," said St. Clair County Health Department Environmental Health Manager Sharon Valentine. "If it's something like they don't have proper refrigeration, we will have them remove all of the food from the unit and put it into a unit that is working. We will go back and check it until these items are corrected."
The East Side Health District provides health inspections in Canteen, Centreville, East St. Louis and Stites townships since 1937. Doug King, the district's environmental health director, said there are occasional inspections that are near perfect, which means all food is maintained at cooked at proper temperatures and all points of the food preparation area is clean.
However, King said there are times when a small spill on the floor that occurred minutes before the inspection come into play and inspectors have to make a "professional decision."
"Do you mark them off or reward them?" King asked. "You may already have a rapport with them and you may decide to tell them to just clean this up. Things like that are minor, so we may do that and they make get a 100. They are not technically perfect, but close to it. We are not there just to be hammering them on points. We want to get people to think about food safety."
The Retail Food Sanitary Inspection Report conducted by the East Side Health District in East St. Louis has 15 categories: food; food protection; personnel; food equipment and utensils; water; sewage; plumbing; toilet and hand-washing facilities; garbage and refuse disposal; insect, rodent and animal control; floors, walls and ceilings; lighting; ventilation; dressing rooms, and other operations. There are 46 total different points of inspection. All violations carry a point value of one, two, four or five points.
For example, garbage stored outside a restaurant that is not enclosed or clean is a one-point deduction. Trash containers anywhere inside not covered, clean or if there are not an adequate number of them is a two-point penalty. Restaurants are deducted four points if food is not properly wrapped and preserved, and five points if food that requires refrigeration is not kept at the right temperature during storage or preparation.
Boisseau said the best advice she has for restaurateurs is to keep their eyes open and make sure their employees are up to par with health and safety regulations.
"We ask them to keep things clean," she said. "Other than that, we just work at it. It's not always easy. You put in extra hours to make sure things are clean. It's a real team effort."
Hatton said that as long as restaurant owners and workers keep their kitchens clean and appliances and stoves fixed and working properly, health inspections should not be an issue.
Boisseau said Rachel's Garden, which is named after her granddaughter, is owned and operated by her family and staffed by long-term employees who carry a strong sense of pride about the business. She said everyone who works there treats the restaurant as if it were their own kitchen at home.
"I tell everybody that I eat here, so I want this place to be clean," she said. "All of our employees are long-term employees and most all of them have been here over 10 years, and some have been here for just about 10 years and they take pride in the restaurant, too. It's kind of like it's their restaurant as well as it is ours.
"We try to keep it looking the same way the inspectors see it all year long. If the inspector comes in and they have suggestions for us, something that would do to make it better, by the time they come back, we've incorporated them. We don't look at and say they are just picky. This is our business. I keep my kitchen at home clean, so I definitely keep the kitchen here clean."
Contact reporter Will Buss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2526.