COLUMBIA — Cesar Valdivia stood behind the cash register, smiling widely at a woman who has just finished raving about his restaurant’s “impeccable fajitas.”
Valdivia, who immigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the U.S. in 1998, owns and operates Tequila Mexican Restaurant on South Providence.
Although he receives many compliments, they aren’t the only type of feedback Valdivia and his employees are used to hearing.
During a health code inspection last year, Valdivia was cited with seven critical and eight noncritical violations — well above the average for restaurants in Columbia.
Valdivia is not alone. After analysis of 384 establishments that qualify as restaurants in Boone County, a trend emerged: local restaurants serving ethnic cuisine receive more citations than other types of restaurants. The Missourian analysis, conducted in December 2007, looked at the three most recent inspections for the county’s eateries. It showed locally owned ethnic cuisine restaurants averaged 2.2 critical violations and 4.7 noncritical violations. Nonethnic local and chain restaurants in the county average .8 critical violations and 2.8 noncritical violations.
When local nonethnic restaurants are separated from the chains, they fare about the same in critical violations but have slightly fewer noncritical violations.
According to the Health Department’s Web site, a violation is critical when it’s more likely “to contribute to food contamination, illness, or environmental health hazard” and must be corrected at the time of the inspection unless more time is needed.
When inspecting a restaurant, the inspector is looking for things that will pose a risk to the general public and could make people ill.
These risks include a restaurant having dirty floors, food being stored at improper temperatures or even workers not having the appropriate food handler’s documentation.
“Our mission as public health professionals is to try to identify risks or problems in establishments, get them corrected, so that we reduce the risk to the consuming public,” said Gerry Worley, environmental heath manager at the Columbia/Boone County Health Department. “We’re not trying to penalize anyone, certainly not any ethnic operation.”
Restaurants never know when one of Columbia’s nine inspectors will swing by for the next inspection. They are unannounced, but owners can expect them to come three times a year.
Worley thinks the reason for the higher number of violations is simple. He thinks the high numbers can be attributed to one thing: locally owned ethnic restaurants prepare their food from scratch.
Because of this, Worley said, “There’s just more opportunities for us, when we inspect them, to find something that’s not recommended or would be illustrated as a violation of food code and mark it as such.”
Valdivia said his restaurant goes through more steps in preparation than many others. His first job in the U.S. was as a bus boy at Chevys Fresh Mex on I-70 Drive Southwest. While there, he learned the chain restaurant’s method of preparing food.
“All our food doesn’t come all spiced up and breaded and frozen and ready to go,” Valdivia said. “We have to work with it from fresh ingredients. We have to thaw, cook, cool it, and then cook it again,” he said. “Some of our food takes days to prepare, and all those steps, it’s hard to always keep on top of every temperature and every little thing,” he said.
Valdivia pointed out that large chain restaurants have standard procedures and recipes to guide them through safe food preparation, whereas small restaurant owners have to develop their own recipes and methods. He notes that there is some trial and error involved in starting a business of any type.
Annie Zhang, owner of Peking Restaurant on Green Meadows Road, says she knows the health code inside and out but that it’s difficult to keep all the little things up when the restaurant becomes busy. Her restaurant received three critical and nine noncritical violations at its last inspection.
Her violations ranged from critical, such as “eggs in plastic container at room temperature” to noncritical, such as not having soap in a dispenser or having an obstructed sink.
“When we are busy, we got people running all around the kitchen, putting this here, that there, and it’s hard to keep track. There are just so many things to think about,” Zhang said.
All of Zhang’s employees, like kitchen staff around the county, are required to attend a food handler’s class at the health department. At the class, they learn the basics of the health code and which health hazards to look out for.
The class is offered only in English, but Zhang said she does not see language as a barrier. If an employee does not speak English, the Health Department makes every effort to familiarize them with the food code, Zhang said. Zhang’s Chinese-speaking employees are given food code handbooks written in Mandarin Chinese.
“I’ve been in this country since I was 13 years old and know English very well,” Zhang said. “I took the manager training with the health department, and I’ve read the food code. I know what to do, and I tell my employees ‘you can’t set the ice scoop there’ or ‘put on some gloves.’ They learn what to do from me.”
Valdivia agrees with Zhang, saying that his employees are fully informed of their responsibilities when it comes to obeying the food code. To him, it is not language that is the problem, but a difference in culture.
“It is different in Mexico. They don’t have as many rules. There aren’t as many things to worry about. I think some of my employees come here and I tell them the different things they have to do, but it doesn’t sink in,” he said. “They come from a different culture. They don’t think keeping the beans at 140 degrees is that big of a deal, but it is.”
Valdivia comes from a family of business owners and knows that official health standards are not nearly as high in Mexico as they are in the U.S. He also notes that the code they do have is not strongly enforced.
“I would estimate that at least 70 percent of restaurants in Mexico would be shut down if they were in the United States,” he said.
Valdivia and Zhang both constantly look to improve the safety of their food and preparation areas. Zhang has even implemented a new incentive for her employees to handle food safely in the kitchen, though she’s never had to resort to the measure.
“I tell them, ‘Every time I see you mess up, I take from your paycheck,’” she said. “That way, they have a bigger reason to pay attention.”
Missourian reporters Stephen Bell and Danielle Hohmeier contributed to this report.