by: Jeff Dubois Updated:
You might expect to find rats and insects around a stinky dumpster outside a restaurant, but inside?
King County Health inspectors recently found evidence of rodents and insects in Tai Kong Style, a Chinese restaurant in the University District.
When we visited the recently, we saw a clear path for rodents from the dumpster, through the open back door.
We also found boxes of produce stacked up outside the bathroom, vegetables on the floor, a container of cooked noodles sitting out waiting to be served, and more food on the ground next to a dirty mop bucket.
No surprise to Seattle foodborne-illness attorney Bill Marler, who said, "These are things that cause people to get sick."
Marler has seen it all. He successfully sued Jack in the Box after the fast-food chain's deadly E. coli outbreak in 1993.
He won a record $15.6 million settlement for 9-year-old Brianne Kiner, who was hospitalized for 189 days during that outbreak.
"One mistake, one violation can cause a problem like that, that can take a company from successful to bankrupt, like that," said Marler.
On a recent inspection, Tai Kong Style had one of the worst health inspection scores of any restaurant in Seattle this year.
Every health code violation has a point value; the most critical ones are 25 points. So, a perfect inspection score is zero. 120 points could close a restaurant.
Tai Kong Style scored 91 points. KIRO 7 asked the manager what went wrong:
“The Health Department guy, they gave us a lot of good suggestions and ideas,” the manager said. “And we are doing very well. And the next visit, the second visit, he was very satisfied."
But during that follow-up inspection, some of the workers still didn't have their food worker certification cards, which is a Washington State requirement for any worker who handles food in a restaurant.
Tai Kong Style isn't alone on the list of the worst-scoring restaurants.
Ethiopian restaurant Laco Melza in Seattle's Central District had rodents or insects, the workers weren't washing their hands properly, and some of them didn't have mandatory food certification cards either.
However, on follow-up inspections Laco Melza had fixed those violations.
During an inspection on Oct. 18, workers at Cafe Pho at Northgate Mall were also caught not washing their hands.
And the inspector found evidence of rodents or insects, and potentially contaminated food.
Regular customers were surprised and may not go back.
"Yeah, if my health is at risk, it would be kind of stupid of me to put myself at risk," said Mike Madalina of Mukilteo.
Cafe Pho scored a whopping 105 points in health code violations.
In response to this story, the owner emailed me and said they bought the restaurant just a month before the inspection.
Linh Huynh said she was thankful for the inspector's report and offered this statement:
"We have carefully followed (the) inspector's recommendations and fixed all those mistakes. Those will not happen again."
At Seattle Deli in the International District, inspectors have found uncooked meat sitting on a cool grill, food being kept at temperatures where bacteria could fester, as well as uncovered food poised for contamination.
For whatever reason, many of the restaurants with the worst health inspection scores this year have been Asian or African restaurants, but not all of them.
In July at The Magnolia Village Pub, which is a typical American sports bar, a health inspector found several violations:
The "food-contact surfaces" weren't being maintained, cleaned or sanitized. There was potential food contamination. Workers weren't washing their hands as required.
And some of the food wasn't being kept at the proper temperatures.
The owner of Magnolia Village Pub didn't want to be on camera for our story, but said the violations were circumstantial and have since been fixed.
They're waiting for the health department to come back and re-inspect.
With all the investigating I've done with local restaurants, I could have predicted some of those restaurants would have had bad health inspection scores.
But I found some well-known, fancy restaurants that also had dangerously high health inspection scores.
You can find bread from Seattle-based Macrina Bakery at grocery stores all over town.
But in May, when health inspectors went to the company's flagship bakery and cafe in SoDo, workers were doing things that could put customers at risk.
They didn't have "adequate hand washing facilities" and weren't protecting "ready-to-eat food" from "bare hand contact."
The inspection also found Macrina wasn't properly cooling some of its food.
Marler said those violations need to be taken seriously.
"You sicken one kid with E.coli 0157 and you've got yourself a several million dollar problem," Marler said.
Leslie Mackie, the founder of Macrina Bakery and a nationally respected artisan baker, invited us to see what they've done since May's unsatisfactory inspection.
She said they have retrained all their employees, started using a daily food safety inspection sheet and now have clear labeling for every rack of baked goods that goes into an oven.
"We of course would always want to do the right thing," Mackie said, "and provide the best possible, nutritious food we can to our community."
When I asked about a follow-up inspection, King County Public Health said Macrina Bakery & Cafe had made "significant improvement(s)".
Another surprise on the list of Seattle restaurants with the worst health inspection reports this year was the Seattle Yacht Club on Portage Bay.
In August, the kitchen staff got nailed for keeping raw meat too close to "ready-to-eat" food and for not posting the proper warnings that raw food could make you sick.
"They sort of don't think that they could poison people because they're a famous restaurant or a famous place," Marler said. "I've had foodborne illness outbreaks at some of the fanciest restaurants or the fanciest venues."
It's not the first health concern for the members-only club.
In 2011, more than 150 Seattle Yacht Club guests and employees came down with norovirus.
The source was never found, but the club had to close twice for thorough cleanings.
The Yacht Club manager told me they've fixed the recent violations and have hired a new head chef, since the unsatisfactory inspection.
On a follow-up visit, they had zero violations.
Here's one that might surprise you: The friendly fish-throwers at Pike Place Market are always a hit with tourists, but a health inspector hit them with an "unsatisfactory" rating this summer.
They didn't have nearly as poor a score as some of the other restaurants, but I found a surprising pattern.
Since 2009, the Pike Place Fish Market has failed nine inspections.
The biggest repeat violation is not keeping the fresh seafood at 45 degrees or colder; a critical violation that could make people sick.
Food experts say lukewarm raw fish can breed bacteria.
To be fair, other fish vendors at Pike Place Market have had the same problem and have also failed inspections year after year.
In fact, in their latest inspections, both City Fish and Jack's Fish Spot had more violations than the famous Pike Place Fish Market.
"Public Health here in Seattle should want to fix that," Marler said, "simply because they want to make sure that Seattle doesn't get a black eye."
Since the last unsatisfactory inspection, the manager of Pike Place Fish said they have made some changes to try and keep their fresh seafood colder.