Top

news

Stories

 

Check, please! Keeping tabs on Denver's restaurant-inspection policy

Check, please! Keeping tabs on Denver's restaurant-inspection policy
Mark Manger

In late 2007, Frank Bonanno, one of Denver's most successful restaurateurs, opened Osteria Marco, an Italian restaurant in the heart of Larimer Square. Above the sidewalk entrance squats a brass pig; just beyond the heavy doors is the garde manger station, which offers a peek into Osteria's culinary landscape — a panorama that includes artisanal meats and handcrafted cheeses, plates of antipasti and Sunday pig roasts. Just about every night commands a full house, with guests — tourists and locals alike — streaming through the entryway and down the sweeping staircase to eat, drink and mingle.

On Wednesday, March 28, 2012, the first complaint came in. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment received a call from a diner who had recently eaten at Osteria Marco and claimed to have fallen ill because of that meal. The CDPHE reported the call to the Denver Department of Environment and Health, the city agency that ensures Denver food-service establishments are in compliance with state and federal laws, as well as all city regulations.

The DEH sent investigator Thuy Vu and a rep of Denver Public Health to Osteria Marco; she initially noted that an "unknown pathogen" was the suspected culprit. But she would soon report that "based on interviews conducted by DPH, [the] suspected pathogen is norovirus or noro-like virus." According to the Centers for Disease Control, noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, marked by such symptoms as vomiting, chills, diarrhea, cramps and fever. The CDC estimates that each year, twenty million cases of "acute gastroenteritis are caused by noroviruses"; that translates to roughly one in every fifteen Americans. The CDC also estimates that the norovirus is responsible for more than 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths each year in the United States.

Bonanno was out of town when the trouble started. "It was spring break, and I was in Keystone with my family," recalls Bonanno, who received a phone call from Emily Schwartz, one of his operation directors. "Emily said something about the Department of Environmental Health raiding Osteria, and I told her to call my attorney and tell her to get her ass over there." Denver health officials were "demanding all of our OpenTable guest information, including phone numbers," he says, and also requesting anal swabs from several Osteria employees. "DPH conducted interviews of two ill employees, both of whom refused the request from DEH and DPH to submit specimen samples from rectal swabs and bulk stool samples," Vu noted.

In that same March 29 report, Vu detailed other critical violations she'd observed at Osteria Marco, including "bare hand contact on ready-to-eat foods, hands not washed as required, hand sinks used to dump customer water, use of unpasteurized raw shell eggs in cocktails, improper cold holding temperatures of potentially hazardous foods, and evidence of pests (fruit flies/phorid flies)." Moreover, she noted, the "general manager also reported that nine employees (kitchen and waitstaff) called in sick within five days," in addition to "another large party" that "called the facility directly to complain about a separate, unrelated incident of foodborne illness."

A follow-up inspection of Osteria Marco on March 30 resulted in a cease-and-desist order for bare-hand contact on ready-to-eat foods, as well as a request for the name of every other Bonanno employee who worked not just at Osteria Marco, but Mizuna, Bones, Luca d'Italia, Lou's Food Bar, Russell's Smokehouse and Green Russell. "During the course of the March 29 visit to Osteria Marco to investigate the illness complaint, the investigator learned that there were a number of employees who worked at Osteria Marco and other Bonanno Concepts facilities who had recently been ill," explains Danica Lee, food program manager at DEH and an official with whom the outspoken Bonanno already had a rocky relationship. ("Yes, Danica, I'm mean" was the start of one of Bonanno's blog posts in May.)

Bob McDonald, the city's director of public-health inspections and a twenty-year veteran of the DEH, says his inspectors had every reason to look into Bonanno's other establishments. "When Osteria's outbreak came to my attention," he adds, "I instructed inspectors to check out Frank's other restaurants. With chains like that, it's common that there are cross-employees."

That wasn't all inspectors were instructed to watch for. Lee says her investigator was also told that cured meats were "being illegally manufactured at Luca and then sent to Osteria" — and possibly some of the other Bonanno Concepts restaurants. That led to concern that cured meats "may have been linked in some way to the illness," she explains. "The investigation would have proceeded the same way with any other restaurant group under these circumstances."

But Bonanno insisted then, and still insists today, that the department was on a witch hunt.

Make that meat hunt.

McDonald admits that he "suspected that Frank had a hidden meat-curing room" all along. It was difficult to "confirm it until the outbreak investigation, but we asked one of the staff members at Bones where Osteria's meat products came from, and one of the chefs opened the door for us to look."

Burton Koelliker, executive chef at Osteria Marco, was the employee quizzed about Bonanno's meat-curing program. "They asked Burton where all of the salumi at Osteria came from, suggesting that the meat could have been the culprit for the illnesses, but the fact of the matter is that salumi in and of itself doesn't contain norovirus. Botulism, yes, but not norovirus, which is an airborne illness," says Bonanno.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
20 comments
myliberalbias
myliberalbias

I'm on Frank's side, but he's got one thing a little bit wrong. Norovirus is not really an airborne illness. While one can technically contract the disease by having the "spray" from an infected patient land in one's mouth, it's usually transmitted by hand. Fecal-oral. An infected person fails to properly wash his/her hands, touches an object that is then touched by another. Here's the problem. An infected person can shed the virus for up to two weeks and no employee at a restaurant is going to stay home for two weeks. And even someone who tries to wash properly can make the mistake of touching a faucet handle after using the restroom and touching the (now infected) handle again after washing. Plus, it takes very little virus to pass it along and the bug is not easily killed. Bleach will do it. Purell and Clorox wipes won't. So you see, it's an incredibly difficult germ to control. That's why proper use of gloves is essential in preventing infection. Again, I'm on Frank's side. I say let him have his secret meat lockers. But unless you know HOW norovirus is spread, you can't really know how to prevent its spread. Have a nice day.

Cook1
Cook1

I guarantee the campylobacter at strings was from Ryan Taylors house made cheese.

seejohnedrum
seejohnedrum

Two changes in the last decade have made it much harder on restaurants.  Cold holding temperatures went from 44f to 41f and 5 years ago we eliminated handling of prepared foods.  At the same time, the old inspectors were retiring and the 24 year old kids were filling their spots.  The young up-starts are trying to make their mark by holding the line while not understanding the nuances of food service.  For example, a seasoned inspector knows that a properly operating cooler during a busy period may be a few degrees warm while no danger exists.  Many young inspectors write violations (critical ones) for minor temperature deviations during peek hours.  Any hand contact by personnel is reported and paid for. If a server adjusts a garnish before serving, she is endangering the public.  Balderdash.  Did you know that the most common critical violation pertains to a restaurants hand washing sink.  In order the establish the importance of washing hands The B of H established the sanctity of the hand washing sink decades ago.  God forbid someone fill their water glass or empty anything into the hand washing sink.  The other big ticket getter is the employee drink and personal effects category  Don't you dare put your diet shake in the walk in or have your soda within an eye shot of anything served. I never fight the B of H but I can't wait for the new crop, to catch on.

theglobalguy
theglobalguy

So what ever happened to the El Diablo story?  That one just dropped dead...no follow up, nothing after the owner appealed the closure.  Did WW ever try to see what happened?

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

 *** REGULATION WORKS !! ***

hollyjarmstrong
hollyjarmstrong

This also highlights why restaurants should be required to provide sick leave and health benefits to their workers (in addition to increasing base wage to at least minimum wage). Passing norovirus (or other illnesses) will never be completely eliminated but we can certainly help minimize the risk if we make sure workers are not cooking or serving food when they are sick. Many of these workers cannot afford to stay home so they buck up and go to work.

sexyfood
sexyfood

Mchalmers is obviously someone with the health department. Why not come clean about who you are? Easier to hide behind your sterile cubicle? Coward.

mchalmers
mchalmers

Actually if she knew anything current about the situation, she would know that the HD has become MUCH more lenient with restaurants and the new approach to the fines system

mchalmers
mchalmers

Lori was not invited to the recent restaurant/health department meeting, being that she just writes about the food industry.

Frank did not attend, but if he did, he would've been politely asked to keep the conversations between the two private. I'm sure it was Lori who thought she should write something.

atomicspice
atomicspice

I've never been a Frank Bonanno fan, but after reading this, I'm impressed with what he's doing to stand up to the health department. He comes across as likable, smart and cooperative with minimal arrogance. The health department is a menace and seems to definitely have an agenda that goes way beyond standard restaurant inspections. Great writing, informative and thought provoking.

JamesB7
JamesB7

Great story. Thanks...

bobbypinz
bobbypinz

Obviously oldnews didn't read the whole story. Cause that's what it says...that they're working together. And better grab a dictionary for all those tough words. Like "members". The article is brilliant and points out some of the flaws in a system rife with bureaucracy. Just ask any restaurant owner!

oldnews
oldnews

Lori, way to bring up old shit.   Currently the health deparment is working with memebers of Colorado Restaurant Assocaition to make sure they everything is well known between both parties and so that we can work amicably together to make sure that food regulations are resonable and followed.  

DonkeyHotay
DonkeyHotay topcommenter

@hollyjarmstrong ... you'll no doubt eagerly pay HIGHER PRICES for your restaurant outings to cover the cost and expense of Sick Leave and Health Benefits, right?

seejohnedrum
seejohnedrum

@mchalmers Wrong.  New regulations come down all the time.  Holding temps change as do accepted procedures.  Denver has gotten much stricter.  I know.  10 years ago everything was made by un-gloved hands.  Folks like you go to Starbucks with the fucking Flu but freak out if your server has a slight sniffle.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety
LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@mchalmers You're right -- I was not invited to that meeting (my understanding is that no press was invited). And that specific meeting to which you refer, and which took place just a few months ago, isn't mentioned anywhere in my story.

LoriMidsonCafeSociety
LoriMidsonCafeSociety moderator editor

@oldnews As the commenter above you pointed out, it would behoove you to read the entire story, which makes it crystal clear that restaurateurs, the CRA and the health department are making strides in working amicably with one another.

 
Loading...