Wednesday, June 19, 2013
PORTLAND — When Michele Sturgeon, the city's new health inspector, started making her rounds of restaurants about a year ago, she started raising issues that some owners hadn't known about.
Michele Sturgeon, Portland's Health Inspector, in her City Hall office on Wednesday, August 15, 2012.
John Ewing / Staff Photographer
Jason Loring, the chef-owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar and Taco Escobarr, near the corner of Oak and Congress streets, was told by Sturgeon that it was a violation for Nosh Kitchen to open its folding doors onto the sidewalk, to connect the restaurant's interior with outdoor seating.
Though he would prefer to offer diners that type of atmosphere, especially during the summer months, Loring has opted to keep those doors closed.
On July 13, Sturgeon sent a letter to all city-licensed food establishments, inviting their operators to information sessions because she was finding "a lack of education" about the food code during inspections.
Sturgeon and her boss, Michael Russell of the city's Health and Human Services Department, hosted their third session Tuesday night. About 20 people, most of them restaurant owners, attended the session at City Hall.
Portland has about 800 restaurants, which by law must be inspected every two years -- more often if a complaint is filed alleging a violation.
"I'm big on education," Sturgeon told the audience. "I'm not trying to whack anyone or get anyone in trouble."
Sturgeon has been on the job since August 2011, when the city created a health inspector position in the Health and Human Services Department.
Previously, Russell said, inspections were done by a group of people who were trained in a variety of jobs. He said the city ordinances governing food inspections were outdated.
Portland is now operating under a code that was ratified by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999 and adopted by Maine in 2001.
The FDA ratified a new code in 2009, Sturgeon said, and it's getting a line-by-line review by state health officials. It's expected to be adopted by Maine this year or in 2013.
"There has never been one full-time person doing this job," Russell said of Sturgeon's position. "Michelle anticipated there would be a learning curve, and there has been.
"We feel it's important to protect the public's health and be fair to businesses," he said.
Russell said there has been a "handful" of temporary restaurant closings because of violations detected by Sturgeon, but he could not offer specifics.
Loring said he might disagree with the rules, but he applauds Sturgeon for her determination to uphold food service regulations.
"There are things in Portland that we've gotten away with for the last 20 or 30 years. She is just following the rules," he said. "There is just one of her and there probably should be four."
Earlier Tuesday, Steve DiMillo said, "I really don't have any concerns."
DiMillo, whose family owns DiMillo's On the Water and who is board chairman of the Maine Restaurant Association. "They always find something that we're not doing correctly or that we used to do but then it kind of fell out of favor. If things aren't a regular habit, you know, then you forget."
As examples, he mentioned checking to make sure that all of a restaurant's coolers have working thermometers, and that there's nothing on the floor that shouldn't be there.
"Those are the kinds of things that we usually get written up on," he said. "They're not violations that are critical."
Jay Villani, owner of Sonny's on Exchange Street and Local 188 on Congress Street, said he supports an overhaul of the restaurant inspection system.
"I think we've gone above and beyond what the city and state have asked us to do," he said.
"All these new rules and regulations, I'm excited that they're getting their act together and they're catching up with the rest of the country. On those levels, that's great," he said.
Villani said he hopes the city will "be flexible with the new muscle they're flexing" and give restaurants a chance to come into compliance if the health inspector finds something wrong.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad contributed to this report.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org