Metro-East News

A year after health violations closed Belleville cafe, owners say problems are fixed

Breakfast is a popular meal served at Main Street Cafe in Belleville.
Breakfast is a popular meal served at Main Street Cafe in Belleville.

One year after St. Clair County health inspectors shutdown Main Street Café for “unsanitary conditions,” the Belleville restaurant continues to receive warnings about cleanliness, pest control and proper food storage.

During a recent inspection late last month, the health department advised the restaurant to keep its doors closed to prevent rodents from entering the building, located at 1601 W. Main St.

The recommendation comes a year after a health inspector saw “insect and rat droppings visible in the kitchen and under fountain soda area.”

In an interview with the Belleville News-Democrat, owner Betty Chu said the violations that shut her restaurant down a year ago have been corrected.

“We’re doing a lot better,” Chu said. “The time we got shut down, it was the landlord, not us.”

Chu has complained about being “picked on because she and her husband are immigrants and can’t speak English very well.”

Health inspectors shut the restaurant down Jan. 26, 2017, according to St. Clair County Health Department documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Critical violations during the 2017 inspection included concerns about cooks not washing their hands, an absent certified food manager and cross contamination in the kitchen.

The restaurant reopened, but one year later, the latest health department inspection, which occurred Jan. 25, included two critical violations and a list of recommendations related to the cleanliness of the cafe.

Chu blamed her former landlord for not keeping up the building. His lack of upkeep, Chu said, led to violations. The peeling ceiling, photographed by the health department, was a big problem in the restaurant that needed to be fixed.

Chu said her old landlord fixed that and other issues, but she eventually decided to buy the building herself.

The latest violations included replacing broken gaskets on the coolers, cleaning the hood filters, cleaning surfaces where food is kept and stored, providing running water for the ice cream storage well and cleaning the floors throughout the restaurant in hard-to-reach areas.

The latest inspection also reminded the restaurant about the proper storage of clean dishes.

A year ago, many of these same recommendations were made after a foodborne illness complaint, along with several others.

Barb Hohlt, executive director of the St. Clair County Health Department, sent a note to the mayor’s office about the issue in 2017 after the restaurant was forced to close.

“We closed West Main Cafe around 10 a.m. this morning due to unsanitary conditions,” Hohlt wrote in an email Jan. 26, 2017. “They have had numerous repeated violations since 2015 and we have called them in for hearings, corrective action places, etc. and we received a complaint.”

That foodborne illness complaint filed Jan. 25, 2017, uncovered a long list of issues.

When health inspectors arrived at the restaurant last year, an unknown liquid was dripping onto raw uncovered pork chops, according to the county’s inspection records.

Those pork chops were discarded and the cooks were warned about washing their hands after handling raw fish along with ready-to-eat food.

Chu was summoned to a hearing in January 2017. She was summoned to another hearing related to violations in November 2017.

According to St. Clair County property records, Chu now owns the building that houses the restaurant along with her husband, Kwong Yan.

The family has been in the restaurant business for more than 30 years, Chu said. They’ve operated other restaurants in the area including China Quick on Carlyle Avenue in Belleville. That restaurant scored a 93 out of 100 after a recent inspection.

During the inspection that caused the shutdown last year of the Main Street Cafe, the conversation became heated, according to the county documents. Before and after the complaint about discrimination, the county has called in an interpreter to help with the language barrier.

The county paid $250 and put in an emergency order for a Mandarin interpreter.

Chu said she does everything the health department recommends, even though a long list of violations paint a different picture.

Customers have mixed feelings

Randy Keller, a Belleville resident, was a frequent customer at the restaurant until the ownership changed a few years ago. Keller said he noticed a change in the portions served at the restaurant where he ate up to five times a week.

He’s posted numerous photos of his food at the restaurant on social media. He doesn’t do that as much anymore. The cleanliness of the restaurant is a concern, but Keller said he was more disappointed about the restaurant losing a sense of community when it stopped offering a discount to senior patrons.

“I don’t eat there as much as I used to,” Keller said while pointing out a change in customer service and cleanliness.

He’s not alone, but plenty of customers are still fans of the locally-owned business. The restaurant was buzzing on a recent Wednesday night. The parking lot was also packed Friday morning as customers shuffled in and out of the restaurant.

The next inspection date for the restaurant was unknown as of Monday.

Cara Anthony: 618-239-2471, @CaraRAnthony