Kitchen confidential: A peek into Aspen’s restaurant inspection program
On a recent afternoon, Natalie Tsevdos combed through the back-of-the-house operations at Aspen Valley’s Castle Creek Café making sure the restaurant complies with state health inspection standards.
Tsevdos, the city of Aspen’s senior environmental health specialist, spent about an hour going through coolers, food containers, hot drawers, walk-ins, storage closets, the cook line where lunch is being served and other elements in the kitchen.
She pulled out her thermometer, wiped it with a sanitizing cloth, and took the temperatures of stored food ingredients and pizza slices placed under heat lamps.
Everything checked out, which was a sigh of relief for Kristy Bates, AVH’s nutrition director, who walked around with Tsevdos answering her questions and explaining internal methods to keep food safe.
But, as Bates noted, the hospital has strict food-handling policies because of the nature of the business, with patient safety and other regulatory agencies routinely monitoring it.
Castle Creek Cafe almost made it through the inspection with flying colors but at the end, Tsevdos noticed that the high-temperature dish-washing machine was not reaching a minimum temp of at least 180 degrees during the final rinse cycle.
Bates explained that AVH has a system that alerts her via email when temperatures fall below what’s allowed.
“We have what’s called the temp track system and everything’s digital, so the second something drops above what it’s supposed to be, or below what it’s supposed to be for hot holding, it sends an email notification to me and to the director of facilities,” she said. “So that will notify that something’s out of range and then it automatically sends a ticket to maintenance to check on it. It’s kind of nice because it takes it off our hands.”
Bates followed up with Tsevdos after the inspection and informed her that the water temperature had been adjusted.
Tsevdos, who is in charge of inspecting roughly 116 food establishments located in the city, said violations typically are corrected on-site.
It’s rare that a restaurant or food retail establishment comes away with a clean bill of health after a surprise inspection.
“It’s not common that restaurants are perfect,” Tsevdos said. “It’s important to remember that an inspection is a snapshot in time.”
There are levels of severity, she noted, but usually violations are not so egregious that they cannot be fixed easily.
The big risk factors are food temperatures, personal hygiene, clean equipment and obtaining food from approved sources.
If there are repeat violations at a particular establishment, the concern becomes whether it’s systemic within the operation and if staff members are being trained correctly.
Tsevdos said fines typically don’t work toward a solution so the city doesn’t levy them.
Rather, education and more frequent inspections are the city’s play on repeat offenders.
In a review of inspection records by The Aspen Times during the 2018-19 winter and 2019 summer seasons, there were 24 restaurants found in violation of the standards set by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.
Some of them had as many as eight violations at once, and several with a half dozen.
Common violations include failure to properly wash hands, hold proper cold and hot temperatures, and date mark foods. Inspectors also check to see if food is properly stored and not subject to cross contamination.
The city operates under the department of public health and environment, and as part of what’s called a “local assistance program.”
The city is mandated by the state to conduct restaurant inspections; however, the department of public health and environment can take over the responsibility as it did with Pitkin County last year for reasons that are not clear.
Tsevdos, who has been on the job for almost a year, said she meets with state officials on a quarterly basis but is in communication more frequently than that.
The city’s consumer protection program budget is $104,000, which includes salary, benefits, travel training, materials and other ancillary costs, according to C.J. Oliver, the director of the municipal government’s environmental health and sustainability department.
The state provides an annual $10,000 grant that helps pay for the inspection program. Additionally, the city keeps the majority of the revenue from restaurant license fees that it collects for annual retail food service licenses.
That amount fluctuates depending on the number of facilities it has to inspect but is currently around $35,000, Oliver said.
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A more than $2 million expansion of the Pitkin County Landfill slated to add between six and eight years of life to the facility, which is rapidly running out of room, is nearly complete.