Take an inside look at Nashville’s restaurant health inspections

By: Mary Alex Lanier, Studio M staff // 

Los Tres Amigos is a pleasant Mexican-style restaurant located in Donelson. While the food tastes great and the atmosphere is friendly, there is also something to say for the restaurant’s cleanliness. As of April 2018, Los Tres Amigos has received 100s on its past three health inspections. Although not uncommon to make a 100, out of the 1,868 places to dine in Nashville, not many get a perfect score three times in a row.

Carlos Romero of Los Tres Amigos checks food temperatures. (Photo by Mary Alex Lanier)

“I stay on my employees about the little things, making sure the restaurant is always in perfect condition for the health inspector,” says manager Carlos Romero.

Romero says they have to do things you wouldn’t think about, such as labeling all their stored food with dates and making sure the ice scoop is “handle-up” when in the ice bin. “We keep a checklist with all the things that need to be done, for every shift,” Romero said. “If it’s not done, someone is getting held responsible. As a manager, I take it very serious. But making a perfect score every time is difficult. They can be picky.”

INTERACTIVE MAP: View a map of several Nashville restaurants with perfect health inspection scores 

Metro’s guidelines for scoring restaurants are based off a list of 46 different categories. The most a restaurant can lose for one category is five points. This means, for example, that if a restaurant had some spoiled meat, this one item would cost the restaurant only five points and could still give them a 95 on their health inspection score.

 

Hunter Ray is manager of the Whitt’s Barbecue location off of Harding Place in Nashville. “It’s almost impossible to get a 100 every time,” Ray says. “If they give it to you once, they don’t like to do it twice in a row. They’re always looking for something.” Whitt’s has a posted score of 100 (November 2017) on the Metro website, but scored a 95 in April 2018.

“I do not disagree with process… if anything, I think they should inspect more,” Ray says. “It keeps us on our toes and helps us stay informed with the newest regulations. They change them sometimes, so we might being doing something that was okay six months ago, but now we have to do it a little differently.”

“The daily tasks are important. It’s about consistency, not cleaning things all at once. I want the store to be perfect no matter who’s walking in,” says Ray. It is worth noting that Whitt’s other location on Alabama Avenue in Nashville does have a score of 100.

Steve Crosier, head of Metro Public Health Department, says Nashville is overall a very clean city regarding restaurant scores, but doing inspections has become harder. Anyone who lives in Nashville knows it just keeps getting bigger, growing at a rate of 100 people per day. A growing city means a growing number of restaurants, which calls for more inspections.

“We used to do at least two to three a year for every establishment, but now we don’t always reach that number,” Crosier says. “We inspect more than just restaurants. So a Walgreens that might have gotten two inspections five years ago is now only getting one. We make sure restaurants are getting two, and more complex food establishments (breakfast-in-beds, food trucks) might even get three. Food-borne illnesses is one of our biggest concerns. Any formal complaint on a restaurant calls for an inspection.”

Croiser said that the main things they check for are employees’ hand-washing, food temperatures and an employee illness policy at a restaurant.

“It’s important for restaurants to have a policy regarding ill employees,” he says. “A lot of times sick employee still try to go to work. It’s easy for managers to let this happen. If an employee has any type of symptoms, they do not need to come into work.”

“We also check for proper sanitation of surfaces and we check the food source,” says Crosier. The distance that the food is coming from impacts the amount of time restaurants can keep it for serving.

What happens when a restaurant gets a really bad score? Crosier if a restaurant gets below a 90 they have a period of 10 days in which we will will return for a follow-up inspection. Most restaurants fix their problems before the follow-up.

The low score is posted in the restaurant and is a big turn-off for customers.

“We haven’t shut down many places; so far none this year. We really only shut down restaurants when there are problems such as no hot water or sewer water back-up on the property, and they can re-open when the problems are fixed.”

All restaurant scores are posted on the bright yellow paper and should be viewable for all customers. Customers also have the right to ask why the restaurant has deductions. It should be marked on the page under the category in which the deductions are made. The scores are posted at www.foodinspections.nashville.gov. There is also an app, Tennessee Restaurant Inspection Scores, with all the updated scores.

Mary Alex Lanier is a student at Middle Tennessee State University majoring in public relations and marketing.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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