For decades, it was appointment television in Houston.
The late, great and always colorful consumer advocate Marvin Zindler zealously delivered his weekly restaurant report on KTRK-TV. The crescendo of it all was when Zindler would, with extra ire and a thundering voice, out eateries where inspectors discovered "slime in the ice machine!"
Anyone with equal disdain for the unsanitary film that can build up in the ice maker might be disgusted to know that we’ve found dozens of instances where inspectors noted slime in the ice machine at food establishments in Dallas. Most people wouldn’t know it, either.
There's no “Marvin Zindler” on North Texas television to report the dirty details each week and there's no real-time data publicly available, even if such a television personality existed here. I’ll delve more into that in a moment.
First, I’ll serve up some good news. El Centro College in downtown Dallas has a cooking school where students learn in a hands-on way what it takes to make a career in the food and hospitality industry.
They don’t just have to worry about their own grades. Their commercial kitchen is routinely inspected just like retail restaurants. The school gave WFAA access to the cooking, prepping and cleaning stations there.
I once worked in the restaurant industry, including as a transitional line manager in a high-volume eatery; and I must say after seeing the facility at El Centro, I wasn’t surprised that the kitchen there consistently passed its code inspections with flying colors. You might find it heartening that that puts the school among the more than 98 percent of Dallas food businesses that have been meeting health standards in recent years.
City data shows that over the last three years, 23 inspectors conducted an astonishing 36,613 inspections of Dallas' approximately 7,000 food establishments. Of those check-ups:
- 2,847 (7.78% of all inspections) earned a perfect score of 100.
- 17,559 (47.96% of all inspections) earned a “Very Good” score of 90-99.
- 13,896 (37.95% of all inspections) earned a “Good” score of 80-89.
- 1,756 (4.80% of all inspections) earned a “Passing” score of 70-79.
But as the aforementioned slime in the ice machine citations indicate, the news was not all positive.
- 475 (1.30% of all inspections) earned a “Failing” score of 60-69, requiring that they get a follow-up inspection within 10 days or close.
- 80 establishments (.22% of all inspections) earned an “Unacceptable” score of 59 or below, requiring closure and a re-inspection before reopening.
**Note, added together, these score levels add up to 100.01 percent due to a rounding error
Searching the three years of data with Jeff Schnick, editor in chief at the Dallas Business Journal, we found a buffet of unsavory inspections entries, “The violations and the notes from the inspectors go pretty deep."
- “Heavy amounts of rodent droppings”
- “Dead roaches”
- “RODENT DROPPINGS IN STAND MIXER, ON TABLES WITH UTENSILS”
- “EMPLOYEE TOUCHING HAIR & BODY WITHOUT WASHING HANDS”
- “Dirty dishes from the night before”
- “HAIR NET ON CUTTING BOARD”
- “OBSERVED LIVE ROACHES IN KITCHEN”
- “Roaches running over the customers table”
- “Roaches in rice”
- “Cockroaches inside ice machine”
- “MAYONAISE EXPIRED TWO MONTHS AGO”
- “Dog in kitchen”
- “Two dogs in kitchen”
- “Raw chicken skin dripping into ranch dressing bottle”
- “Fruit fly maggots in soda machine gun holster”
That doesn’t present a very appetizing picture. Thankfully, there are plenty of snapshots that do.
“It kind of became a hobby,” said blogger and foodie Rhonda Dutton, who loves food and her photos of it, “There’s probably close to 7,000 (food pics) in my Instagram”.
Dutton eats out almost every day. I noted that while her photographs look great, she didn’t have a detailed idea of what has been going on in the kitchens of those snapped in Dallas restaurants.
Dutton chuckled, “We love to live in ignorant bliss when it comes to what we’re eating”.
More accurately, we just haven’t had much information to chew on in Dallas. The city offers a very limited menu of restaurant data, posting restaurant inspection scores. Currently, the city doesn’t include any information about violations that contributed to a score and that is unusual.
"People love to eat out," Dutton said. "Our food is great. We have very famous chefs here. I am surprised we are behind.”
I manually checked and found that violations are publicly posted for food establishments in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Nashville, Orlando, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Portland, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, CA., San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington D.C..
Also, this isn't a comprehensive list, but I found several other North Texas cities offering restaurant inspection detail that Dallas doesn't. Some of the more comprehensive sites were in Fort Worth, Tarrant County and Plano.
I went to Dallas City Hall to ask the director of Dallas Code Compliance, Kris Sweckard, why the city doesn’t publicly post the data like so many other large cities.
"Not because it is impossible," he said. "It just hasn’t been a priority."
I asked whether it's a priority now. And he said, "yes."
To be clear, it only became a priority because our news partners at the Dallas Business Journal pressed for the information.
“Being able to get in here and find out why a restaurant performed well or poorly is important, not only because it is a health issue but also because it is an access issue," Schnick said.
Schnick said the DBJ began requesting the data in October 2016, and that after a lot of back and forth, in April 2017 the Journal finally received the last three years of city inspections.
"This is a really big document”, Schnick pointed out as he navigated the monstrous Excel spreadsheet that gives a glimpse into whether Dallas eateries are as good behind the scenes as they are at the table.
Now that we’ve seen the details, officials agree you should as well. In my interview with Sweckard, he acknowledged, “Consumers have the right to see all information that local government is using and that we have possession of”.
Starting within a matter of weeks, the city is promising to begin publishing details on its website that will enhance food establishment scores with information about violations. They plan to update the data monthly.
“I love it," Dutton said.
The serial restaurant patron and prolific amateur food photographer knows those reports just might give consumers the best picture yet of how good a restaurant really is.
Andy Rittler, the executive director of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association, says his organization, which counts 1,200 member businesses, about 70 percent of them located in Dallas, says the organization lauds accountability.
However, Rittler says the city should have already contacted the association for input on the rollout of any changes regarding inspection data being made public. And Rittler has serious reservations about such a database only being updated monthly, rather than letting consumers know in real-time when violations have been remedied.
I’ll delve more into that in a future article. And we'll be watching to see if the city of Dallas fulfills its promise start publishing violation information.
VIEW: GOOGLE DOCS (DALLAS INSPECTIONS FROM 2014 TO 2017: