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Business Thu Aug 25 2011
By Monica Reida
After being inspected 19 times in the two years since its opening, Logan Square Kitchen owner Zina Murray is challenging the Chicago Department of Public Health over a recently issued ticket for violations.
A ticket and fine was issued to Murray--which she says on her blog was for $500 while Jose Muñoz, Deputy Commissioner for Community Affairs with the CDPH, says was actually $250--during an August 2 inspection, when a new supervisor accompanied their usual inspector. During the inspection, the supervisor found several violations: alleged black mold growing on both interior walls and an interior water tray; a freezer owned by another food establishment; and the threshold of an exit door being too low and causing light to come in through a door corner.
Murray believes that these violations were the result of nitpicking on the part of the inspector and had no grounds to be written up. "She made some decisions that I didn't think were appropriate and I challenged her on that," she said. In the blog post, Murray says that she feels as though she received the ticket as a result of questioning the supervisor's actions.
The inspection on August 2 was the first time Logan Square Kitchen was found to have violations. According to Murray, the inspections happen every time Logan Square Kitchen gets a new client, and tend to last two-and-a-half to three hours each time. Current clients include an ice cream maker and numerous bakeries. "They check my plumbing every time, walk around with flashlights, test every piece of equipment," Murray said, describing the process of the inspections.
Since being cited for violations, Murray has had to post a health inspection report showing the violations as well as informing those that use Logan Square Kitchen of the violations, although she disagrees with the weight of the CDPH's findings. None of the inspector's findings met what the city deems the most "critical" violations, such as a lack of hot water or poor storage temperatures. Nonetheless, the damage to Murray's image has been done, in her opinion. "The Chicago Health Department has sullied my reputation as a clean kitchen," Murray said.
Logan Square Kitchen is not the only shared kitchen to have a run-in with City inspectors. Flora Confections, who rented space through Kitchen Chicago, was visited from CDPH last year over a licensing problem that resulted in the bulk of her ingredient supply getting destroyed with bleach (which was taped).
Owners of restaurants and kitchens in Chicago rarely seem to successfully fight the CDPH, even if the rules are confusing to both the business and inspector, or when inspectors seem overly motivated in finding violations. "One of the reasons that people don't speak up about the abuse of the health department authority is because too much is at stake," Murray said. "They can shut you down. So most people keep quiet and pay their fines."
Murray also said that she's seen other restaurants go up to three years without being inspected by the City; some don't even display a notice of their most recent inspection. These discrepancies are not outrageous, given how Department's staffing operates. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, Murray discovered that only 38 inspectors are employed by the City to inspect the over 20,000 restaurants in business in Chicago, and they do not get vacation time or sick days. According to Murray, the inspectors do about four inspections a day, not counting complaint investigations and visiting new businesses and kitchen remodels. "They can't do all of that without something going uninspected," Murray said.
Even if inspectors have a heavy caseload, their efforts are largely unknown to consumers. The public has no way of finding out when a business has been inspected for health violations these days unless a physical notice is posted in the restaurant. The City hasn't updated their Food Inspection Reporting System in over a year, and prior to that, the online system hadn't been consistently operating for almost two years. Among the few businesses near Logan Square Kitchen with available inspection records are a few corner groceries, a video store, and a gas station.
Murray's FOIA research revealed that the majority of licensed food sales facilities currently in business in Chicago must be inspected twice yearly. In contrast, Logan Square kitchen has been visited by the CDPH eleven times in one year. Logan Square Kitchen is no longer thinking their visits are out of public health-related concerns. "If you're coming here 11 times you're not looking for food safety dangers, you're looking for money," Murray said.
The Shared Kitchens Ordinance, which goes into effect in September, is supposed to streamline the process for inspections. Currently, shared kitchens are required to be inspected every time a new business using the kitchen applies for a license. According to Muñoz, the Shared Kitchens Ordinance would result in kitchens only being inspected about twice a year, assuming that no complaints are filed against or disease outbreaks linked to the kitchens or the businesses using the kitchens. When the ordinance was passed earlier this summer, then-mayor Richard Daley praised the legislation for "[supporting] an emerging creative food industry in Chicago." Even if shared kitchens are seen as the wave of the future for supporting food entrepreneurs, the administrative side of the City seems to be less enthused about the extra effort presently needed to keep these places in compliance. "It's a burnout for us to go [to a shared kitchen] every time there's a new business," Muñoz said about the current process for inspecting shared kitchens. Murray would like the ordinance to be changed by Mayor Emanuel's administration, as well as efforts to be made to encourage positive dialogue between food-selling businesses and the CDPH.
Logan Square Kitchen has spent much of its short life in the ring with the City, most recently winning a large battle over outdated parking requirements that threatened their business license last fall. New gloves in hand, Zina Murray and her supporters head to court to contest the recent ticket is today at 1pm at 400 West Superior.