Germ Patrol: Restaurant Inspector Not Always Welcome
To the staffs at some restaurants, Percell Locklear Jr. is about as welcome as a bad tipper.
As one of 10 environmental-health specialists in Moore County, the 42-year-old Locklear is responsible for inspecting food establishments, hotels, nursing homes and school cafeterias for anything that's less than sanitary. So when he walks in unannounced, wearing a hairnet and serious look and carrying a checklist of 49 items, owners and staff don't always react well.
"They just get excited and nervous and apprehensive," Locklear says. "I try to let them know that we're there to help them."
Linda Cummings, owner of the Aberdeen restaurant Southern Lights, which he is visiting today, should have no reason to worry -- the most recent rating it earned was a 98. He greets the owner and asks how business is doing as he enters the kitchen, then heads straight for the sink.
The first order of business is washing his hands. He scrubs from fingernail to elbow with the fastidiousness of a doctor prepping for surgery.
"That's one of the items we look for on our inspection sheet -- handwashing," Locklear says. "So if we aren't practicing it, then do you think they're going to practice it?"
In fact, improper hand-washing by employees is one of the weightiest infractions, deducting up to four points from the restaurant's total score.
After washing up, Locklear goes straight to work. He grabs the restaurant's spray bottle of bleach-and-water solution and spritzes a chlorine test strip. The strip turns lavender, indicating that the cleanser is at the proper concentration of 50 parts per million. A weaker solution doesn't clean well enough, while a stronger solution becomes acidic and could harm customers.
"It's good to go," Locklear says. "If they don't have it at the proper strength, then we have to go through it with them to make sure they make up more and it is at the proper strength."
In fact, every problem has to be corrected before he leaves. But fixing the problem on site doesn't earn back the points.
"The grade they make, that's it," he says.
He returns to the sink to wash his hands after handling the spray bottle. This is the second of nine times he washes during the inspection, which he says really takes a toll on his hands.
"They're all chapped, falling apart," Locklear says. "You think it's bad now? During the winter is when it's really bad."
He then moves to the dishwashing sink, not to wash his hands, but to take the temperature of the hot water from the faucet. It climbs to 133 degrees, three degrees above the requirement.
After cleaning the thermometer with an alcohol swab, he stabs it first into hamburger patties in the refrigerator, then into what appears to be chicken salad in the cooler, to make sure they are also at a proper temperature.
"Good job," he says as he studies the thermometer reading. "Thirty-eight and dropping."
He then pulls out a small flashlight and begins poking around the racks of drying dishes, his short stature benefiting him as he stoops to search for "little droppings."
"With the naked eye, it's hard to see it, but when you get this light, you can," Locklear says, adding that the presence of insects, rodents or animals deducts only two points from the sanitation score.
This restaurant lacks the telltale signs of critters, so he moves on to survey the meat slicer.
"These are supposed to be cleaned every night," Locklear says. "I look for buildup, and that tells me that they're not being cleaned."
Then something catches Locklear's probing eyes: several whisks stored in a can with handles pointing down. He pulls out the small voice recorder on a string around his neck to note this first deduction.
A few moments later, the recorder appears again when Locklear notices a couple of flies in the kitchen.
Locklear is meticulous and businesslike, but he says restaurant inspectors aren't always stern.
"We have fun sometimes," he says. "We do pick on them. 'Oh, you've got some buggies, huh?' 'Oh, we do?' They're immediately embarrassed. But as far as cleaning jokes, I try not to, because some folks might take it the wrong way."
Finally, it's time for his favorite part of the inspection -- checking the freezer and refrigerator temperatures.
"It really lets you know what's going on," he says. "You can hide some things, but you can't hide whether or not those coolers are working properly."
He continues toward the back of the store, stopping briefly to inspect cardboard boxes of pitchers sitting on the floor beside a shelf -- another deduction, since items can't be stored on the floor. He exits the building to check that the trash cans are secured and enters the bathrooms to make sure the toilets flush properly.
And if Locklear seems to be checking out the employees, he is.
"I'll stand and observe," he says. "We look at their hand-washing procedures, whether or not they have any diseases of the skin, cuts or scrapes. We look at their clothing to make sure they don't have on any dirty clothing. That falls under employee hygiene."
Locklear pulls out his recorder after observing this restaurant's employees. One isn't wearing an "effective hair restraint" -- a hairnet, cap or visor. That's another tick off the score.
After he examines several more items, the inspection is complete.
He takes a seat to review his recording and deliver the final verdict. Owner Cummings looks on nervously.
"Flies weren't present last time, so I'm just going to take off half," Locklear says, later explaining: "I try to work with them as much as possible. Yeah, we do have rules and regulations to follow, but we also try to keep a good working relationship with our food establishment owners and operators."
Keeping that good relationship is one thing at which Locklear excels, says Iris Davis, the county's environmental health program specialist.
"He has a good rapport with his facilities," she says. "He is very courteous and respectful of them. He is very dedicated to his job and serious about completing his quotas. He does a good job."
The scoring follows a 10-point scale. The maximum score a restaurant can earn is 102, which includes two points businesses can earn by completing a food handling course.
"It basically teaches management and staff how to go about preparing and handling food from the time it's brought in the door by their suppliers to the time it is taken out the back to the dumpsters," Locklear says.
But beginning Jan. 1, 2009, completing the course can no longer boost the score. Instead, not having the course will deduct two points.
The lowest possible grade is 70, at which point the inspector must revoke the restaurant's permit, which Locklear hasn't had to do -- yet.
Locklear pulls a new display card from his briefcase and carefully prints "97.0" on the sheet.
He's Seen It All
More than an hour has passed by the time Locklear has peered into every nook and cranny in the place.
"We really don't have a set number that we try to do every day," he says. "We just try to get to as many as we can. It all depends on what we will find once we arrive there. Some places, you may walk in and it not be so good, so it might take a little bit longer -- or even all day."
Although Southern Lights had only minor issues, Locklear has seen much worse -- including mice and roaches -- during his eight years as a restaurant inspector in Robeson and Moore counties.
Before starting his career, he graduated with a degree in environmental health from East Carolina University and worked with quality control in plants near his hometown of Maxton. Living on a Robeson County farm, he often cooks at home.
So does seeing the often nasty side of the food industry make him avoid restaurants altogether?
"Not really," Locklear says, "because I'm with them every day, and they try. I mean, some folks aren't going to do as good as others, but they are all trying. It doesn't really deter me. The majority of them do good up here."
Contact Kellen Moore at 692-7271 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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