I would describe our meeting Tuesday with Health Commissioner Choucair (SHOE-care) as constructive and loaded with potential. Over 30 members of the food business community made time to offer suggestions and begin what I hope will be ongoing diablog on how to work together in fine fashion. THANK YOU to everyone who came, I am continually inspired by the food community in Chicago.
So here’s what happened: I gave Dr. Choucair and his team a very quick tour of the Kitchen. There were three businesses at work: Celestial Kitchens, Flour Cake & Pastry, and Veruca Chocolates. I was happy CDPH got to see the Kitchen in action– but I’m sure it was a little nerve-racking for our clients! One of the CDPH team members was Sandra Alfred, the brand new head of the Food Protection Division. The post has been vacant over a year, so I’m glad to see that post filled. After the WHOOSH! Kitchen Tour, we joined the food biz community in our dining room.
Dr. Choucair first presented LSK with a clean inspection report, and related for the group the steps CDPH took to provide clean reports to businesses that are ultimately found not liable for violations. Yeah! (You can get the backstory in previous blog posts.) Then the real meat was served up.
The Commissioner really has a huge job. He oversees 39 divisions, 1000 employees, and faces huge challenges: reducing obesity and infant mortality; reducing tobacco use; HIV prevention– AND, of course, food protection. Antiquated code, inadequate resources, you get the idea. So I give him props for volunteering to sit down with food business owners to hear how to improve our experience.
At the end of the meeting the Commissioner turned to me and sounded surprised when he said, "That was good." I don’t think he was expecting such positive and thoughtful suggestions. But the private sector is desperate for solutions to the unbearable weight of inspectors during the Daley years, and is eager to talk about how to move forward.
Here’s what I recall from the meeting (chime in on Facebook with what I miss). CDPH is checking in to these suggestions:
1. Sanitizer requirements: Chicago is the only municipality that requires 100 ppm of sanitizer while all cities look for 50 ppm. So we’re required to use twice the chlorine of other cities. Thanks to Jon Tunney of Intelligent Cleaning Solutions for handing off materials to Sandra Alfred and bringing this issue to light.
2. Inspection consistency: The room felt unanimous to me on this issue. Food business owners never know what to expect when the health inspector appears at their door. Jason Hammel of Lula/Nightwood described it as one of the most ‘dangerous’ events he encounters as a restaurant owner. I agree. Sharing information with owners was the big request. CDPH mentioned that inspectors have a checklist, and talked about making it available to operators.
3. Business Inspection Failures: When the Dept of Buildings reviews restaurant blueprints, CDPH checks them too. But as the Commissioner discussed, he learned that 82% of new restaurants fail their initial health inspection. Clearly something wasn’t right. To support the business owners, CDPH has published a guide to passing a first health inspection. It also has detailed a supervising sanitarian to the Dept of Business Affairs to work with new food businesses. These are first generation cracks at the problem, (read: lots of room for improvement). The failure rate has fallen to 50%. Better, but still lots of room for improvement.
4. Building Plan Approvals: Michael Kornick of MK Restaurant shared a wealth of experience and suggestions from other cities. One very valuable suggestion was having the Health Department formally stamp and approve the plans before construction, so owners know they will not be asked to make changes to facilities once construction is complete. Currently, inspectors can require expensive, time-consuming changes to newly constructed spaces. (I wandered into JAM in Logan Square on Friday to discover it had failed its health inspection this week– it needs to add a hand sink. This is a perfect example of a costly delay for a small business that could be avoided with new policy.)
5. The Code: It’s the law, vague, antiquated, and problematic. The Commissioner admitted he’s at a loss for how to approach revamping such a behemoth. A suggestion from MK to adopt the Las Vegas code as one of the best in the nation, I piped up with "it would be cheaper to shred the one we have and just use theirs." I got a smile with that remark.
6. Health Inspectors: General consensus here was the need for inspectors that are better trained about food, equipment, communication and customer service. My opinion is that in times of high unemployment, we should be able to have uber-qualified folks in all levels of government. Commission Choucair provided some heartening practices for employee performance evaluation and correction. He very clearly stated his aim is to insure that every job in CDPH has the right person in it. And, that if that means some folks will be fired, then so be it. Over and over, the Commissioner repeatedly asked for everyone’s help in reporting problems. He can’t solve what he can’t fix. By the same token, I mentioned that the culture may take time to change, as reporting a health inspector in Chicago is a risky proposition.
7. Ongoing dialog: Dr. Choucair admitted he has ‘narrow bandwidth’, but wants to hear suggestions on how to improve performance. We informally discussed an advisory panel that would offer suggestions. I think it may make sense to gather at LSK periodically— quarterly, maybe? — to discuss the suggestions/feedback to provide to the health dept. I’m in the process of figuring out what LSK can offer to facilitate that dialog.
All in all, I’m encouraged. Michael Roper from Hopleaf described it as the most positive meeting with someone from the Health Dept. in 20 years. Sad, but hopefully this is a sign of better times ahead. Thanks again for everyone who made wonderful contributions to the meeting, I hope to see you again soon!