Bay Area Restaurants Skirt Inspection Posting Laws

The Investigative Unit uncovers rules requiring restaurants to post inspections not being enforced up the Peninsula and in San Francisco.

What’s up? Not Inspection Reports.

At any Los Angeles restaurant, customers know before the first bite, exactly what health inspectors thought about the place: Summarized in a letter grade.

With a similar purpose in mind, San Mateo and San Francisco counties both have ordinances requiring restaurants post the most recent inspection so that it’s “clearly visible” so patrons can make informed choices of where they dine.

However, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit found the law isn’t being enforced and there are little or no consequences for not complying.

But the simple existence of the ordinance is something Silicon Valley is just beginning to chew on. Earlier this month, the Investigative Unit uncovered Santa Clara County has no system to score or grade restaurants and they don’t have to hang up any report. To view the original report, click here.

Yet in San Mateo and San Francisco counties, the law is already on the books- since 2005 in San Mateo and 2004 in San Francisco. But here’s some food for thought: What good is an ordinance if no one is enforcing it? The ordinances, as written, do not significantly penalize restaurants for ignoring the law: In San Francisco, a point is docked from their inspection and in San Mateo County there are no consequences.

The Investigative Unit took hidden cameras into 50 restaurants across the two counties to see who is following the rules. The majority had no visible inspection report.

San Mateo County

In San Mateo County, only one out of 25 restaurants the Investigative Unit went into had the most recent inspection report posted and in plain view.

The county’s ordinance requires it rank restaurants as excellent, good, fair or poor.
Less than three percent of restaurants earned a “poor” rating last year, but the popular Café Barrone in Menlo Park is one of them, cited for “major violations that might cause a food borne illness”. To view the latest inspection reports, click here.

One Café Barrone employees joked with undercover reporters that they were “making the managers sweat” when the team asked to see the cafe’s inspection. Nothing was hung up and the employees could not locate the report.

When contacted by NBC Bay Area, the owners of Café Barrone said they were told they did not have to post it because they had a record of good scores. The county says it is against policy to advise a restaurant not to hang up a report and it is looking into the situation.

The team went on to Chuck E. Cheese in San Bruno, where a report was on display right by the door, but it’s dated 2009. When asked if he is supposed to have the most recent inspection up, the manager said, “the health inspector never told me to.” When later contacted by NBC Bay Area the manager said the most recent report is now posted.

NBC Bay Area showed Antoinette Mantz of San Mateo County’s Environmental some of the undercover video.

When asked if the system is working, Mantz responded: “I think that we have several tools for communicating inspection results to the public.”

The Investigative Unit pressed Mantz, asking several times if she viewed the findings as acceptable, but she would not directly answer the question. “I think the important thing to remember is that there is always that additional education we can do with the restaurants,” she said.

Despite having an ordinance, San Mateo County does not ding restaurants that do not post inspection reports. In Los Angeles, however, the County Department of Public Health sends restaurant owners who do not comply with the posting requirements to educational hearings. Second offenders are typically threatened with losing their license.

San Francisco County

NBC Bay Area’s undercover reporters also explored 25 restaurants across San Francisco, from Union Square to the Marina to North Beach, looking to see whether inspection reports were hung up and easy to spot.

It turned into a game of hide and seek.

At Umami Burger in the Marina, a bartender pulled out the report from behind the wine- it’s supposed to be posted in clear view for customers who walk into the restaurant. At Tacko in the Marina, the report was nearly touching the ceiling, hung out of the line of sight: above a door. At Lori’s Diner near Union Square, the report was hidden behind a potted plant. Other restaurants had it in drawers, in different buildings or in the kitchen. To compare, LA’s ordinance requires the sign be posted within five feet of the restaurant’s main entrance, ensuring its visibility.

When contacted by NBC Bay Area, all San Francisco restaurant owners said they would move the report into plain view except for Umami Burger, which did not return the Investigative Unit’s emails or phone calls.

“I think there’s a lot of misinformation,” Richard Lee of San Francisco’s Department of Public Health said in response to the undercover work. “I think it’s not a high priority for them or if they have a bad score, it’s not something they necessarily want their customers to come see.”

San Francisco County ordinance requires inspectors score restaurants on a scale of 1 to 100. The county posts that information online in a detailed, easy to access format. They’ve also teamed up with Yelp to post scores there.

Last year, less than 8 percent of restaurants scored below an 80. Balboa Café in the Marina received an 81, which the county cites as “needs improvement”, but customers walking in, would never know. The café had nothing posted.

“As long as it’s available for the public to read, it doesn’t have to be in public view,” the café’s manager told the undercover team, after retrieving the report from an upstairs office. “We have to keep it up for a certain number of days after the evaluation, and then we can take it down as long as it’s accessible to guests.”

Lee told the Investigative Unit that the manager’s response was incorrect. He also said restaurants not hanging a report will be docked a point on their inspection score. According to the ordinance, restaurants could also be fined up to $50.

However, some restaurants that did not hang up that legally required inspection, had another piece of paper on display from the county. They are score cards that boast a large number from 1 to 100, color coded based on level of score. It’s a simplification of the information found on the two-page reports, and easy for customers to read and spot.

The Investigative Unit asked Lee about the placard created by his department. He said the cards are not required to be hung up, but he agrees, they’re helpful.

“I think it would improve public information,” he said. “It would be easier for the general public to understand and it’s probably more useful to them than looking at the inspection report.”

But right now, it’s not required. Lee said the future of what’s posted is a policy decision up to the Board of Supervisors to pass. Until then, it appears restaurants will decide what information they want customers to see.

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