September 20, 2012

Before rat infestation, Porthole had 28 other violations

The waterfront restaurant closed for health violations in September was also cited in August, but never shut down.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Less than a month before the Porthole was shut down for health code violations, the city's health inspector documented 28 violations at the waterfront restaurant but allowed it to stay open.

click image to enlarge

The Porthole Restaurant, the Comedy Connection, and Harbour's Edge, all on Custom House Wharf, were shut down Friday, September 14, 2012, by the Portland Health Inspector for what she cited as rat infestation, flies on food, drains going into the ocean and other violations.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The city closed the Porthole and two associated businesses on Custom House Wharf -- the Comedy Connection nightclub and the Harbour's Edge banquet hall -- on Sept. 13, citing a long list of violations that included a "serious rat infestation."

All three businesses were allowed to reopen Sunday.

Documents released by the city Friday in response to a public records request by the Portland Press Herald showed that the Porthole had not been inspected since July 2008. But city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg later provided an inspection report from April 2009.

According to additional records released Tuesday, the city inspected the Porthole on Aug. 18 in response to a complaint. Officials said the Portland Fire Department requested the health inspection after a fire suppression system was activated inadvertently that evening. The restaurant closed after the incident.

The report from the inspection that followed includes three pages of violations, directing the restaurant to "remain closed until re-inspection" and to hire a pest control company. A note on the report says the building would be "shutting down Jan. 1 for (a) major overhaul."

City inspectors revisited the restaurant a day later and noted only six violations. A note on the report says, "no follow-up necessary due to impending closure."

Health Inspector Michele Sturgeon said she was called to the Porthole on Aug. 18 to ensure that any food that had been contaminated by the fire suppression chemicals was disposed of, but she decided to do a full inspection.

She did not inspect the Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge, which share a kitchen with the Porthole.

Her report lists 28 violations, including eight critical violations, defined by state law as likely to pose a risk for contamination or illness, or an imminent health risk

Sturgeon said all but 13 violations, including two critical violations, were corrected while she was there, but the restaurant was required to have a follow-up inspection before reopening.

Restaurants with 13 or fewer violations -- no more than 10 non-critical and three critical -- are allowed to stay open, provided they work to fix the problems, Sturgeon said.

Oliver Keithly, who owns the Porthole, said his staff thoroughly cleaned the kitchen on Aug. 19. Workers removed equipment to clean up the fire suppression powder, and cleaned hood vents and other areas, he said.

Keithly said he also hired a pest control company. The property was assessed by Command Pest Services on Aug. 20, but the company said it would take a week or two get the equipment in to do the job, he said.

"What the city asked me to do is contact a pest management company and set up a contract, and that's what I did less than 24 hours after they asked me to do it," he said Wednesday.

An anonymous complaint was filed against the restaurant on Sept. 13, after several people allegedly got sick from eating potato salad at a function at the banquet hall. The inspection that day produced three pages of violations and a note from Sturgeon saying that no more violations would be itemized.

Keithly said he was "stunned" to have so many violations accumulate from Aug. 19 to Sept. 13.

Asked how that could happen, Sturgeon said last week's inspection included the Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge, while the inspections on Aug. 18 and 19 did not.

After the inspection on Sept. 13, the pest management company fixed holes in the building and set rat traps outdoors, Keithly said. His staff cleaned the kitchen during the weekend, and Sanis Cleaning Co. cleaned it again Tuesday night, according to the city.

The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating floor drains that led directly to Portland Harbor -- a violation -- but have since been plugged.

On Wednesday, Douglas Gardner, the city's director of health and human services, defended his decision to allow the Porthole to cook a lobster dinner for a wedding party on Friday, after the kitchen had been closed.

Sturgeon noted that day in her report that she saw a rat run out from behind the walk-in cooler, and that "deep cleaning" had not yet been done.

Gardner said most of the rat problems were in a storage area between the Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge. The lobster meal was prepared in the kitchen but served on the Casablanca harbor cruise boat, he said.

"It was a call I made," Gardner said of his decision to allow the business to use the kitchen. "(The Porthole) had made progress. It was a limited private function. They were not serving in the building, and it was a very limited menu."

Gardner said he decided to eat lunch at the Porthole on Sunday as a way to show confidence that the issues had been addressed.

"Eating there on Sunday was a function of a conversation I had with Oliver on Saturday morning," Gardner said. "It was in response to a comment I have made to the owner and a commitment I made."

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings

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