September 17, 2012

Before rat infestation, Porthole violations went unchecked, reports show

City inspectors found problems from 2007 to 2009 but failed to follow up.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The Porthole had a history of health code violations that went unchecked for more than two years before a city inspector closed the waterfront restaurant Thursday because of a rat infestation and other problems.

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The Porthole Restaurant, the Comedy Connection and Harbour's Edge, all on Custom House Wharf, in Portland were shut down Thursday for health violations, then cleared to reopen Saturday.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The Porthole, the Comedy Connection nightclub and the Harbour's Edge banquet hall -- all in the same building on Custom House Wharf -- were sufficiently cleaned up, reinspected and cleared to reopen Saturday afternoon by Health Inspector Michele Sturgeon.

Reports from 2007 to 2009 show that city inspectors found similar problems, with dirty or malfunctioning equipment, holes in the ceiling and walls, peeling paint, broken or missing floor tiles, and plumbing that wasn't up to code.

The Porthole wasn't inspected in 2010 or 2011, when the city was in the midst of moving responsibility for food service inspections from the code enforcement office, within the Planning Department, to the Health and Human Services Department, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

"We had significant staff reductions around that time and we weren't really able to accomplish what we had done in the past," Clegg said Monday.

A report in 2008 called for a follow-up inspection to determine whether plumbing had been installed as ordered for the bar on the Porthole's deck. The next available report, from 2009, made no mention of the plumbing issue, but cited several other problems, including improper food and utensil storage.

The city hired Sturgeon in September 2011, shortly after the state reduced the requirement for food service inspections from yearly to once every two years, Clegg said.

With about 800 food service establishments in Portland, Sturgeon must do about two inspections per day to keep up and hold the businesses accountable to the laws they're expected to follow.

"We're making a concerted effort to be more proactive and educate food service providers about their responsibilities," Clegg said.

Sturgeon allowed the Porthole to reopen after the restaurant's staff thoroughly cleaned the premises Friday and Saturday and owner Oliver Keithly hired Command Pest Services of Gray to get rid of the rats and close any holes in the building.

"It's an ongoing issue, especially in an older building on the waterfront," Keithly said Monday afternoon.

Keithly promised to hire a professional cleaning company to further sanitize walls, ceilings and structural features, and to hire a certified food protection manager as required by state law within 60 days. Sturgeon scheduled a reinspection and planning meeting for Sept. 24.

"I feel confident that the city and myself have worked together to alleviate any concerns," Keithly said.

Keithly wouldn't say how much money his business has lost or spent because of the shutdown. He said he's more concerned that his business won't survive the bad publicity.

He said he believes a disgruntled former employee wrote the anonymous letter that called attention to the health code violations.

Douglas Gardner, Portland's health and human services director, said he's confident that Keithly has addressed significant code violations and will keep problems in check.

Three floor drains that flowed into Portland Harbor were permanently blocked with concrete, Gardner said, and several malfunctioning and dirty appliances were taken out of service, including an ice maker, a food mixer and a meat slicer.

Gardner acknowledged that he allowed Keithly to use the Porthole's kitchen Friday evening to prepare a boiled lobster dinner for a 40-person wedding reception that had been scheduled in the Harbour's Edge banquet hall.

The kitchen had been cleaned thoroughly and the restaurant remained closed to the public, Gardner said. The meal was served aboard the Casablanca harbor tour boat, which docks beside the Porthole and is where the couple got married.

Keithly said he told the couple why the banquet hall was closed.

Gardner said Keithly and the city acted quickly to reopen the Porthole and get its employees back to work.

"It's really about having a pest-control protocol in place and staying on top of it," Gardner said. "The owner was motivated and we were motivated. We didn't want to see anyone's livelihood put at risk and we need to make sure the public's health is protected."

Michael Peaslee, technical services manager at Modern Pest Control in Brunswick, said it's possible to address a rodent infestation adequately in a couple of days and he's confident that a health inspector would err on the side of caution.

"Some of the things that led to the shutdown may not have been a priority before they became public," Peaslee said. "Now, they have to act. It's so situational, but it could be done in a couple of days with the right resources. I don't think the health inspector would be letting that business open back up if they hadn't taken care of things."

Gardner showed his confidence in what Keithly has done so far by having lunch at the Porthole on Sunday -- a chicken pesto sandwich that he said was "very good."

The restaurant had a healthy lunch crowd Monday, with several tables filled indoors and on the deck. Patrons said they enjoyed their meals.

Patti and Gary Field of Lompoc, Calif., said their lobster rolls were the best they had ever had and they liked the Porthole's casual atmosphere.

They hadn't heard about the health code violations.

Neither had Lauren and Mary Connolly of Portland, who shared clam chowder, fish and chips and salad. Their two kids had chicken fingers.

"It was great," Lauren Connolly said, and they saw "no critters."

Enjoying the view from the Porthole's deck was A.J. Deraspe, a former Portland resident who now lives and works in Los Angeles as a personal chef, nutritionist and food consultant. Deraspe and several friends had heard about the health code violations but were undeterred.

"It's the Porthole," Deraspe said. "Anything with that name, you shouldn't expect white linen, fancy food and an elitist attitude. It's perfect Old Port, seaside comfort food. And the Bloody Marys are great."

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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