Even Bonanno remembers a day when his dealings with the city were far from hostile. "When we first opened Mizuna in 2001, our relationship with the health department was fabulous, and there was even an inspector who would come in for dinner at Luca with his wife and eat the salumi plate," says Bonanno. When that investigator visited one of Bonanno's restaurants to conduct an inspection, he was always "thorough and fair," Bonanno insists. And when a violation was documented, a restaurateur "was allowed the opportunity to fix the infraction on the spot."

But while restaurants might have liked the old system, there were complaints, too. "The department received a great deal of input and, to some extent, constructive criticism from the media and citizens about the lack of enforcement for repeat violations found in regulated facilities," Bob McDonald remembers. And so he worked with restaurants to create a new system for the 3,000-plus brick-and-mortar food establishments that the city is responsible for inspecting. In 2000, Denver began requiring a restaurant that had been cited with a critical violation to post a "public notice of enforcement" on its windows or door.

But since what was considered a "critical violation" could range from a lone ice cube in the hand-washing sink to a true threat to public health, restaurateurs had problems with this new system, too, likening the in-your-face paper postings to the "death penalty, or, as one person called it, 'a scarlet letter,'" recalls Meersman. And often those signs would be posted "long after the violation had occurred, and long after the violation had already been fixed."

Frank Bonanno
Frank Bonanno
Pete Meersman
Pete Meersman

By 2010, restaurateurs were beyond fed up, and the CRA began to advocate for change. "We worked with the Denver Department of Environmental Health and Denver City Council to get rid of the postings, because they were misleading — except where an imminent danger to the public existed and a restaurant had to be closed immediately," Meersman explains.

McDonald was involved in those discussions. "We were asked by the CRA and restaurateurs to take a look at the enforcement model that had been in place for ten years, and we agreed to modify the process to reduce the number of postings," he says.

But there was a tradeoff, Meersman recalls: "The department wanted to step up the fines."

Previously, Denver policy had mandated that a restaurant was subject to a $300 penalty after three consecutive critical violations in the same category within an eighteen-month period. A fine of $2,000 — the maximum allowed — would be assessed to restaurants that were closed by the health department if, says McDonald, "they presented an imminent public health risk, either because of the operator's negligence or something like the hot water heater going out, which isn't necessarily the fault of the restaurant, but still presents an imminent food-safety danger to the public."

On January 1, 2011, the policy was changed to allow a $250 fine for the second violation in the same category during a twelve-month stretch; a third violation would command a $500 fine. "We all worked together to get to this point," Meersman says.

Unlike most of his colleagues, though, Bonanno went ballistic over the new plan. "Everyone thought it was great, but they were being hoodwinked by Bob," he insists.

"Bob McDonald is fucking lying to you," Bonanno told a gathering of health-department reps, restaurant operators and chefs at a meeting held in 2011 at the CRA offices. "All this is doing is giving the health department free rein to fine us without the public knowing what they're doing behind closed doors."

Bonanno recalls telling the meeting's attendees that the new fine system was "nothing more than a cash stream," pointing out that "if the mission of the health department is really public safety, then why were they so willing to remove the postings, which would have continued to allow the public to be informed? It's clearly more about generating revenue than public safety."

Larry Herz, a veteran restaurateur who owns 730 South, a busy neighborhood restaurant in Bonnie Brae, agrees with Bonanno. "I'm an advocate of Frank, and the fact that he's standing up for what's right," says Herz. "I feel the same way that he does — that it's a money grab. It's so obvious that it's just another revenue stream. It's like the police giving speeding tickets to people going 56 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per-hour zone."

Although Bonanno and Herz were in the minority in preferring public postings over increased fines, all of the parties agreed that twelve months after the new system was introduced, they could review how it was working. "We wanted to revisit its overall effectiveness, so we started having discussions in early 2012," Meersman says.

By then, it was clear that while inspections might not have increased, the amount collected from fines had. In 2008, there were 9,003 food-service inspections conducted in the City and County of Denver, and the total fines collected amounted to $122,335; in 2009, the department inspected 7,811 food-service establishments, collecting $157,690. In 2010, the health department conducted 8,211 inspections, generating $118,995 in fines. But in 2011, when the Denver health department conducted 8,090 inspections, it managed to collect $731,900 in fines. And 677 restaurants were fined in 2011, compared to 315 in 2008.

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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.

 
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