I am, in modern parlance, “an old,” so I remember the unsettling scene from 1976’s “The Marathon Man” in which a Nazi war criminal, played by Laurence Olivier, repeatedly asks Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?” while laying out dental instruments with which to torture him. Hoffman — terrified, sweating and strapped to a chair — replies, “Yes, it’s safe. It’s very safe. It’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.” Whenever I see the blue polo shirt of a Metro Health Department inspector slip into my place of employment, my brain coughs up this scene.
After all, the Health Department representative is there to ultimately decide if the food and service you’re providing to your guests are safe and to certify your establishment to continue to do so. And with rare exception, we’re all constantly striving to meet, or exceed, these expectations. The rules are fair, but complex. An employee with health department certification must be on-site at all times. This person will have gone through the program and passed the test given by the department, and he or she is responsible for guiding and overseeing other food service workers (who haven’t received certification) to maintain the standards laid out in the health code.
In Louisville Metro, health inspections are conducted roughly every six months. But of that day and hour knoweth no man, as they say in the Bible. Inspectors might show up on a Monday as the dishwasher is unlocking the door to begin the day, or in the middle of a busy dinner service Saturday night. Sometimes, they announce themselves to a manager in the dining room, and sometimes they slip in the back door to the kitchen. Once that clipboard-toting blue polo shirt is the house, though, it’s pretty much too late to change things or hide any transgressions. One must keep (up the illusion of) calm and carry on.
For instance, the inspector might stand at the hand sink to observe handwashing techniques. During health department training, they teach you to use one verse of “Happy Birthday to You” to approximate how long you should wash your hands to achieve optimum cleanliness. So there you are, tunelessly humming under your breath while you lather up: “happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday, who-ever,” or-is-that-Whomever-Christ-I-hope-grammar-doesn’t-count (deep breath, big finish) “haaaaap-py birthday to yooooooou!!!” Don’t touch the handle, do not touch the tap handle. Don’t Touch It. The inspector is hanging out a few feet away, staring at his watch, but probably thinking about his latest Netflix binge. Boxes of gloves might magically appear on stations that don’t always sport them. Everyone starts polishing something. Lightly-used towels arc through the air into the laundry hamper. Buckets of sanitizer water, which were perfectly fine, get dumped and refreshed and labeled with the time they were filled. Dishwashers scramble for their pH test strips and start testing their rinse basins as if this is typical behavior.
But for the most part, Health Department inspectors aren’t out to get any business, unless that place has a history of repeated code violations. It’s not a career that anyone’s getting rich on, either — the average salary for an inspector in Metro Louisville is just over $47,000 a year. While that’s far more than most cooks, and even some chefs, make, there’s probably no inspector going to bed tonight looking forward to spending her day tomorrow sticking a thermometer into a burrito at the State Fair in a 100-degree, food vendor booth. Despite whispered, secondhand legends, they don’t rake in cash bribes all day, or get offered sumptuous meals in exchange for cooking the forms in our favor.
We’re nervous anyway.
In this internet age, anybody can look up and read the results of your health inspection online. Potential customers don’t have to drive to your door and peruse the notice for themselves. And while a deduction for “unsanitary conditions” might be for rat droppings or rotten food, it could just as easily be for a half-consumed cup of coffee some server absentmindedly left on a shelf above an open silverware cabinet.
Most of the time, though, things aren’t so dire.
Inspectors check things out thoroughly, but they’re not unreasonable. But we always feel like we’ve just jumped over 17 flaming school buses on a tricycle, once they leave and that A is on the door. We can breathe for another five months or so. Then, we can steal around a corner with our phones, brag about our inspection grade on Facebook and buff our nails. •
Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, Café Lou Lou, Marketplace @ Theater Square, Fontleroy’s and Harvest.