DICEY DINING Part 1: Some Erie County restaurants violate health standards; News 4 posts all inspections

BUFFALO, NY (WIVB) - Imagine a restaurant operator who didn’t know that raw eggs need to be refrigerated.  “That’s disgusting and gross,” said a diner outside a restaurant. “That is just bad.”

You would know this if the information was readily available but here in Erie County, it’s not.

The only way to find out kitchen secrets is to file a Freedom of Information request, and wait up to 30 days.

“That’s kind of like not really public. I think they should make it public,” said a man on Elmwood Avenue.

Now it is public, and you can find it for yourself because News 4 now has Erie County’s database of inspections covering some 3,000 restaurants going back to 2011.  We’ve put that information on WIVB.com.

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You can search all Erie County inspections since 2011 and search by city or town and search for restaurants by the number of violations. Other WNY counties are also available on WIVB.com.The News 4 app also contains a link to the searchable database that you can access on your smartphone or tablet. click for smartphone | click for tablet

News 4 Reporter Luke Moretti asked Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner, “Why doesn’t the county make that inspection information available online like other counties are doing?”

“Well, some counties do have that information available online and we’re actually developing a product where we will have that information online,” Burnstein answered.

Only Erie County not online

But when? Erie County health officials say they don’t know.   Every other county across New York State has restaurant inspection records posted on a state run website except for Erie County. (New York City and Suffolk County post on their own websites.)

“I don’t understand why they’re not. But something needs to be done about it,” said another man outside Elmwood Avenue eateries.

Erie County provides quarterly information but the state considers that too old to be of any value to the public. The state’s website is updated monthly.

So that means the only place to get the latest Erie County restaurant inspections online is from WIVB.com; not Erie County and not the State of New York.

“If I were to go eat somewhere and they’ve already inspected the place. They should at least like put it up where people can see it,” said another woman.

News 4 analyzed the data

When News 4 analyzed the county health department’s database of inspections from the beginning of this year through September, at least three eateries rose to the top with the most violations.

Critical violations can include foods not protected from contamination, improperly cooled or not heated to the right temperature.  Critical violations can lead to serious illness or even death.

New Fuji Buffet

At the New Fuji Buffet on Sheridan Drive in Amherst, the Health Department found 5 critical and 18 non-critical violations during an August inspection. Among the violations: inspectors found about six dozen eggs on a kitchen counter with a temperature of 82 degrees.

“At that temperature range the best thing to do was just discard it,” says Mark Kowalski to explain a notation on the inspection report.

Kowalski, of the Erie County Health Department, says New Fuji is among the restaurants needing extra attention from inspectors because of a history of repeat violations.  Such as a cooler with a temperature of 52 degrees instead of the required 45 degrees, a problem cited in 2011, in February and twice in August.

Jet Ni, who identified himself as a spokesperson authorized to speak on behalf of the restaurant, says this stems from equipment problems which are being addressed. “That’s why they have the maintenance guys come more often right now to check out everything. See if something went wrong they can replace it right away,” Ni says.

The Dock at the Bay

The Dock at the Bay on the shores of Lake Erie in Blasdell is another restaurant that’s been on the radar screen of health inspectors.

An August 9th inspection found 6 critical and 17 non-critical violations.  Inspectors noted that foods in a walk-in cooler, including meat, had temperatures between 55 and 57 degrees, and not the 45 degrees or less that’s required by state health regulations.

The operator voluntarily disposed of more than 250 pounds of meat:  30 pounds of prime rib, 45 pounds of beef top round, 51 pounds of  ground beef patties and 71 pounds of beef fillet, according to the inspection report.

“That had to go,” Kowalsi said. “It had been out of temperature for such a period of time it was no longer fit for consumption.”

In an email to News 4,  The Dock at the Bay owner Denise Davison states, “Three of these violations were directly related to a basement walk-in storage cooler that had unexpectedly malfunctioned during the overnight hours and had not yet been noticed by staff.” and, “All other ‘critical’ violations were corrected at the time of inspection.”
During a re-inspection of the restaurant in September, inspectors found no critical and only one non-critical violation.

Francesca’s Italian Cuisine

Another popular eatery is Francesca’s Italian Cuisine on Seneca Street in South Buffalo.

A September 6th inspection found 5 critical and 17 non-critical violations.  Inspectors noted an uncovered bowl in a cooler with a spoon solidified in it.  The report states “first observation thought it was green pea soup, cook told me it was batter (mold growing on it).  Cook voluntarily disposed.”

Just last week Francesca’s was hit with a $350 fine following an administrative hearing before the Erie County Health Department because of repeat violations. “They seem to find issues that would get corrected for the re-check. But then we would find them again later on,” said Erie County’s Kowalski.

Francesca’s manager tells News 4 the issues have already been addressed. “Everything has been corrected,” says Steven Marchione, manager. “I mean there’s not a thing on the list that hasn’t been corrected. Immediately it was corrected immediately.”
“We are clean,” Marchione said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re not clean and safe. We’re very well prepared now and we’re more educated, and the staff is more educated and that’s what it’s all about.”

News 4’s Luke Moretti asked Erie County Health Commissioner Burstein how customers of a restaurant would know about that particular restaurant.

Burstein said that “they may not know the specific details of violations, of what violations exist. However, every restaurant that is open, that we have inspected in Erie County, we feel is safe.”

Inspections insure safety

New York State requires counties to inspect restaurants to insure that they operate safely. Critical or red violations which can lead to food borne illnesses must be corrected immediately.

Non-critical or blue violations focus on cleanliness and equipment maintenance.
Critical violations focus on contaminated foods or foods improperly cooled or refrigerated, conditions that breed bacteria and lead to illnesses.

You may be surprised to know that more than half the 48 food illness outbreaks in New York State last year were traced to restaurants.

Focus is on repeat violators

Erie County’s 20 inspectors aim to visit every restaurant twice a year, but they focus their efforts on restaurants with critical and repeat violations.

Of the 2,317 restaurants inspected through September, 200 were written up for at least one critical violation.

More than half, 1199, had no criticals but were cited for one or more non-critical violations; 918 had no violations at all.

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