Working with the Health Department

Working with health inspectors is an everyday reality of the hospitality industry. It’s one of those things we do so often we start to take it for granted. You know, like your daily duties, food prep, or cleaning duty checklists. After going through them so many times, you know them by heart and start to skip steps or cut corners.

Many times in my career, I’ve come across small hospitality business owners who haven’t accepted the Health Department’s role in operations and actually fear the inevitable inspector pop-in. These owners usually don’t like it when I tell them that they wouldn’t be afraid of the health inspector if they were doing things right in the first place. It actually takes more effort to be dishonest about your business operations than it does to do things the right way the first time.
When I was an operator, I felt it was always good to go back to basics every once in awhile; to revisit skills and knowledge I thought I knew like the back of my hand. So for those of you who haven’t had an inspection in a long time, but know it’s coming, I offer some refresher tips on dealing with inspectors when they arrive.

If you’re a new operator reading this you’ll find these tips helpful for your inescapable first health inspector visit.

Always be prepared. This is the absolute most important rule. If you’re always prepared for an inspection, you’ll never have a problem. Your employees will be properly trained, enabling them to do things right the first time, which will prevent complaints and possible foodborne illness outbreaks.

By the time the inspector gets there, all they’ll have to do is take a quick look around, take any required temps, mark their checklist, and stick your A rating on the window. Maybe they’ll even high five you on the way out.

Be polite to the inspector. Remember, they are just doing their job to help protect you and the public. They actually want to see you succeed. I’ve never dealt with an inspector who was dishonest or falsely reported any infractions on purpose. On the contrary, most of them allowed me to fix some problems while they finished their inspection. If it was properly attended to, they even left it off the report.

When I was finally entrusted with the keys to my first restaurant, an inspector came in and knew that I was a rookie. She actually took the time to explain to me how to fix a problem and helped me to fix it herself. Kudos to the health inspectors of Harris County, Texas on that one.

Never refuse an inspection. All this does is irritate the inspector who will come back with an inspection warrant, and then proceed to scrutinize each and every detail of your establishment. Also, remember inspectors go out with their families, too. If you run a clean operation, those same inspectors could become some of your best customers and promoters.

Accompany the inspector during the inspection. A lot of us do not attempt to talk to the inspector and get to know them. Many times they’re not friendly either, since they’re used to being treated as the enemy. I’ve found that following them around, getting to know them, and allowing them to get to know me saved me from many potential violations. They were able to see me as a good person who was willing to cooperate and do things the right way.

Doing this will also allow you to ask questions and take notes about any issues the inspector spots, or allow you to fix any critical issues immediately. Showing that you want to take the inspection seriously, learn, and work with the inspector goes a long way. Besides, forming great relationships should be a encoded in your DNA if you’re a hospitality manager who’s worth their salt.

Get copies of everything. Get a copy of the inspector’s report or the checklist they used or will use while grading your establishment. These can be obtained by visiting your city’s health department website.

If you are cited for any violations, fix them immediately, within 2-3 days if possible. Then call the inspector to come back to your business for their follow up. Don’t wait until they decide to check back themselves.

Another great idea is to implement the inspector’s checklist into your employee daily duties, all of your daily checklists, and all of your job descriptions so you are clear from the beginning what the conditions for employment will be.

Working with the Health Department is an important aspect of any hospitality business, especially since revenues depend on an establishment’s reputation. Stay on top of things and keep all negative thoughts away from your business’s name and brand.

If you have any tips to add, feel free to leave a comment for me. I’d love to learn from you and to add your advice to future posts.

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