Monday, February 1, 2010

Cleanliness is Next to Speediness

I contacted a guy a couple months ago about a local magazine he was starting. It was to be based around the service industry. Reviews, stories from work, etc. I threw something together for him to try to get a feel for what he wanted. I sent it, he liked it, then I lost contact with him. I don't know if it's ever going to happen so I might as well put my article on here.

Here it is:

We all know that we don’t live in a perfect world. People habitually speed up when they see yellow lights as well as pretending the change in their pockets doesn’t exist when walking past Salvation Army buckets. However, when people step into a restaurant they seem to believe they step into a world of magic. A world where everyone washes their hands and no corners are ever cut in the name of efficiency. This, however, is wrong.

I have worked in many different kitchens throughout my pursuit of the American Dream and have noticed a few running themes. I’ll skip past the obvious one, that every kitchen has at least one habitual substance abuser, and talk about the side of working in a kitchen that most people don’t want to think about: Fast-paced restaurants are not spotless.

Sure, they may be clean enough that people don’t get sick, but they aren’t the shining, sparkling havens of cleanliness we may want them to be. Mr. Clean is not the kitchen manager and Scrubbing Bubbles do not slide all over the floors at night. Sorry. When you’re trying to figure out if that strand of melted cheese is a hair or not, don’t be so quick to assume it didn’t come from someone’s head. Or worse.

I’m not saying every restaurant is infested with mice and filled with drunk cooks farting into their hands. Far from it. Restaurants are usually able to find a happy medium between being safe and sanitary while also delivering food promptly. The truth is, people rarely get sick from food. It happens, but it isn’t as big of a threat as some think. You could lick a high school basketball court from one end to the other after a game and not get sick. You could eat a filet of fish that has sat on a counter for three hours and not get sick. Trust me. I’ve served it.

When it comes to getting grossed out by un-cleanliness, I am at the top of the list. I habitually wash my hands when out in public out of fear of catching a cold. I stand as if surfing when I ride the MARTA train to avoid touching the poles. But when it comes to sitting in a restaurant, I am a pragmatist. I know what happens back there and I’m okay with it. As long as I don’t see my burger hit the floor, I’ll eat it. However, I‘m not going to trick myself into believing it never happens.

You may be wondering how restaurants can get away with having below-standard sanitation practices when there are health inspectors hired by the city to regulate this very thing. It’s pretty easy; they don’t do their jobs well. Every restaurant I’ve worked in got a notice about a week before the inspector arrived. These were hell weeks. All employees would be scrubbing every inch of the building to prepare for the inspector. When the day would finally come, we would hide the list of things we needed to dress up to seem acceptable. The inspector would walk around, find a couple minor problems, like the refrigerator door’s seal not being tight enough, write our little grade sheet and move along. As soon as the inspector would leave, we would all breathe a deep breath and continue using the same gloves to handle beef that we used for the chicken.

This system of health inspectors is not completely worthless, however. Restaurants are now required to post their cleanliness grade for customers to see. This gives the restaurants the incentive to perform well. In early 2008, a restaurant in Gwinnett County scored 13 out of 100. Yeah, that’s right, 13. The health department closed down the restaurant after probably continually muttering, “You have got to be kidding me. Just wash your fucking hands! It’s easy!” So, if Mar Y Tierra in Lilburn opens back up, go the first week when the health problems are all fixed because they will surely revert to their old ways soon after.

Okay, so some restaurants take the idea of expediting the food a little too far. But I will stand by the general idea that complete cleanliness is unnecessary. Sure, I’d like it if every restaurant that ever made me a sandwich did so without skipping any sanitary steps, but then again, I’d like wings to sprout out of my back so I could just fly to the liquor store. We can’t always get what we want so we might as well get used to reality. I’m going to have to keep driving drunk to the liquor store and you’re going to have to keep eating sandwiches cut with knives that touched raw meat.

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