Watching the inspector

If you’d seen the things that health inspector Robert Sobsey has seen, you’d be a vegetarian, too

Health inspector Robert Sobsey tests the temperature of the ravioli fridge at Casale’s Halfway Club.

Health inspector Robert Sobsey tests the temperature of the ravioli fridge at Casale’s Halfway Club.

Photo By David Robert

From the street, Casale’s Halfway Club, at 2501 E. Fourth St., looks weathered, run-down, dilapidated. There’s a dust-blown, unpaved parking lot and hand-lettered signs long since worn away. At first glance, a stranger might ask, is this place even still open?

I’m here to meet Washoe County Public Health Environmentalist Robert Sobsey. He’s been a county health inspector since 1976. In that time, he has faced everything from mild annoyance to a furiously indignant chef who chased him with a butcher knife. The chef, who didn’t speak much English, was fined for interference with a health inspection.

“We became friends after that,” Sobsey says. “He had been having a bad day, and we weren’t communicating well. I’m always learning how to better communicate with people.”

It’s not hard to imagine a happy ending to such a tense situation. Sobsey is unintimidating, a handsome man with graying hair, thoughtful blue eyes and a calm, kindly air. He sees himself as a servant of the community—and as a resource.

Sobsey’s imminent inspection of Casale’s is not going to be routine—in part because RN&R photographer Dave Robert and I are tagging along and partly because the restauraunt’s management is expecting to be inspected. The Washoe County District Health Department agreed to have members of the media along for an inspection only with the consent of the establishment operators. Sobsey himself did the arranging.

“I chose Casale’s because I have a good relationship with the operator and knew they would agree, but also because I think it’s a unique place. It’s been here since 1937—and though the outside character might not be appealing, and the kitchen might not be state of the art, it’s very hygienically sound, which might not be what you would expect. And they have great Italian-style, thin-crust pizza. You can’t judge a book by the cover.”

The flip side of this maxim is gourmet restaurants with what Sobsey calls “five-star ambience and one-star sanitation.” Sobsey mentions having read restaurant reviews in big-city papers that don’t ever factor in health concerns. “Restaurant reviews are usually concerned with ambience, service, price and food quality—but why not health?”

This is why I’m here. I’ve been one of the RN&R’s regular restaurant reviewers for nearly two years. In that time, there have been instances when I’ve given restaurants glowing reviews only to receive admonitions, in person and by letters or e-mails, of having given positive reviews to places that had recently had unsatisfactory health inspections. So, in an effort to improve my skills as a restaurant reviewer, I decided to tag along for some inspections, to familiarize myself with the concerns and the process of inspection. Additionally, I wanted to demystify an under-used and oft-maligned (in some circles of current and former food industry employees) public service.

One restaurant owner, who wished to remain anonymous because of the relationship between inspectors and the restaurants they inspect, says a visit by the health inspector can be scary. There’s a lot riding on the results.

“It’s like when you get pulled over and you don’t know why—there’s a little moment of panic,” she says. “I’ve taken [health inspections] more seriously since I’ve owned a business . . . it can be a bit nerve-racking when they show up with a big clipboard at 1 o’clock on a busy Friday afternoon and say, ‘Hi! I’m from the health department!’ But in the end, they’re doing their job. They have a job to do, and sometimes they have to be a prick.

“It makes you a little nervous, but then you remember that they’re not here to shut you down, they’re just here to point out what you need to do. And if they find something, it really needs to get addressed right away.”

This owner may be more informed than many. She’s taken the Certified Food Protection Manager class, a 16-hour class in food handling and safety, so the results of her own inspections aren’t going to surprise her. And she’s not the only one who reads the results; many folks enjoy the inspections in the same way they take a long gander at an accident on the side of the road.

“I’m surprised at how many of my friends read the health inspections—it’s how they decide where to eat.”

It’s all public information. Consumers can call the District Health Department Environmental Services, 328-2434, with questions or to find out about health reports or to report infractions. Establishments must keep their latest reports, post their permits and, starting July 1, all restaurants must have a Certified Food Protection Manager (old exemptions no longer apply). CFPM classes are offered by private enterprises but only with county-approved instructors and curriculum.

Back to the adventure At Casale’s. What,

from the exterior, appears to be disrepair, reveals itself inside to be rustic charm. It’s a mom-and-pop joint with a retrograde flavor. There’s an original Pac Man arcade game, an old jukebox with Patsy Cline and Dean Martin 45s. The walls around the bar are autographed (with consistently polite scrawl) and pasted with Jägermeister labels. The dining tables are clothed with classic red checker.

Inez Stempeck has been around Casale’s since she was a child. Her parents owned it in its original incarnation as a fruit stand on U.S. Highway 40. Now she is the grand matriarch who owns and runs the restaurant and bar that occupies the same location on what is now Fourth Street. She greets us with a kind smile.

Zhao Wang calls an order to the cooks in the kitchen at Egg Roll King 2. The sink, at right, was turned off at the time of inspection but, judging from the water spots, was working at the time this photo was taken.

Photo By David Robert

Sobsey is friendly and polite, “It’s been awhile since I’ve been here, Inez—do you think you could show me around?”

We follow Stempeck into the old but clean kitchen.

Sobsey carries a clipboard with a notebook, inspection sheets and a pocket thermometer. He uses the thermometer often, checking temperatures of food, water, refrigeration, but rarely does he jot down anything on the clipboard.

“If I was constantly writing things down, it might make the operator uncomfortable, and then they wouldn’t be receptive.”

Stempeck shows us the pantry where she makes fresh ravioli by hand every day, using large, 60-year-old rollers. Sobsey asks about cooking procedures, he asks if the petroleum bags he notices are used for food storage—he’s relieved to find that they are not. He opens drawers, picks up a can opener, looks for rust or food particles. Sobsey shines a light in out of sight corners, looking for debris to clean and possible homes for invading vermin. All during the inspection, Sobsey explains what he’s doing and why—this is for the benefit of the operator.

“Communication” Sobsey stresses again, “is the key.”

In between inspecting the kitchen and the bar, Sobsey takes a look into the restrooms. They’re fine. “If a restaurant’s restrooms aren’t clean,” he warns, “that should make you very suspicious about dining there.”

The bar inspection goes well. Sobsey finds some dirty sponges and throws them away.

“Don’t use sponges,” he tells Stempeck, helpfully rather than critically. “Just use cloth towels.” The test kit used to test the chemical make-up of the washing water is faulty–there’ll be a deduction for this and the sponges, but otherwise, the bar is fine.

After examining the sinks, refrigerators and countertops, Sobsey sits down with Stempeck to review the inspection. He goes through the inspection sheet point by point, suggesting changes, explaining problems, commending virtues.

Stempeck is receptive and courteous. She clearly prides herself on her hospitality and explains, “I’m not Mrs. Wendy’s. This is not fast food. We don’t have a microwave; we don’t have a computer.” She offers us some of her first-rate meatballs, but Sobsey declines.

“I’m a vegetarian,” he says. Later, he’ll explain to me that he never accepts food from an establishment because of the potential for a perceived “compromised position.”

“Where do you like to eat?” I ask.

“Grocery store,” Sobsey jokes.

He is indeed a vegetarian—a personal choice that he claims was not influenced by his years of experience as a health inspector.

“Vegetarians are still at a very high risk for getting food poisoning—and having had food poisoning at least once,” jokes Sobsey, “should be a prerequisite for anybody doing this job.”

Casale’s Halfway Club meatballs, it’s worth mentioning, are quite good, large and spicy and swimming in a tasty, tangy marinara.

Casale’s scores well: 99 percent for the kitchen and 98 percent for the bar area. Stempeck seems pleased, as does Sobsey. A positive inspection is what he wants.

Washoe County health inspector Robert Sobsey demonstrates to Inez Stempeck, owner of Casale’s Halfway Club, how to use pH test strips to test the bleach content of water.

Photo By David Robert

“I like it when I go to an establishment and the operator knows as much about health and sanitation as I do.”

Or, as is the case, at Casale’s, they’re at least receptive to feedback and criticism. Sobsey had recommended that Stempeck paint the walls in the kitchen and explained that this was for her own benefit, that it would, among other things, increase visibility in the kitchen. He had explained that sponges would harbor bacteria and that they had a lower reuse value than cloth towels. He made sure a can of Raid he found in a pantry wasn’t ever used in the kitchen (only certain pest control products approved by the EPA for kitchen use can be used in food preparation areas). Stempeck demonstrated her understanding on each of these points.

Casale’s didn’t yet have a Certified Food Protection Manager because they were exempt under the old regulations, but Stempeck assured Sobsey that she herself was already signed up to take the class the following week.

After reviewing the inspection, Sobsey asked about Stempeck’s family and made casual, friendly conversation. The review was relaxed and painless, with both parties respectful and polite.

The friendly nature of Sobsey’s inspection of Casale’s made me surprised by his later revelation that he had once, many years earlier, suspended their health permit. “But we’re friends now—and that was a long time ago. They’re very conscientious now, they run a tight ship. And we’ve learned how to communicate better now—everyone has to learn how to remove the communication block between themselves and any bureaucrat.”

There is a certain stigma against the health inspector as the worst kind of bureaucrat: a pompous, rule-stricken pencil pusher with no sympathy for the restaurant employee or the small-business owner. I’ve heard stories from current and former employees of local establishments, of managers frantically rushing to clean off counters and get food containers up off the floor upon the arrival of an inspector.

On the other hand, the public expects an inspector to do his job. And for many people, execution of the health inspector’s job includes administering fines, downgrading establishments and suspending health licenses. The complementary aspects of pitiless violator and hardened enforcer make for a fearsome image—a health inspector has incredible power—and an unsatisfactory inspection can cause irreversible damage to a restaurant’s reputation and can kill a business. This is the sort of power a lowly restaurant reviewer, with only the power of his opinions, must envy.

That all this power should manifest itself in the figure of gentle, polite, mild-mannered Robert Sobsey isn’t really all that surprising. Sobsey views the role and function of a health inspector to be one not just of punishment, but of prevention as well. The best method of prevention is education, and the best approach for education is communication. The most effective forms of communication are the gentle, polite, mild-mannered approaches.

I ride with Sobsey a few blocks away to Egg Roll King 2, a quick-order Chinese place. We’re greeted by the owner, Michael Ma, and before I’ve even realized the inspection has begun, there’s a problem. Sobsey had gone to wash his hands before venturing in to inspect the kitchen and found that the hand sink at the entrance to the kitchen had been turned off. The sink was leaky, and, rather than let it drip, Ma had turned it off.

“OK, this needs to be left on,” says Sobsey, clearly frustrated that the inspection is getting off to a bad start. “Don’t turn off the hot water, employees need to be able to wash their hands. If it’s dripping, don’t turn it off, have it fixed.”

This, too, is an establishment that Sobsey has prearranged an inspection with, but it’s clear to me from the beginning, his relationship with this restaurant is not as familiar. Ma seems nervous and over-eager to please.

The décor is standard-issue Asian restaurant: yellow walls adorned with unappetizing portraits of Chinese dishes that, on the plates of diners, look quite good. The restaurant’s tables are separated by an aisle leading straight to the counter and then behind it the register and then, farther along, the kitchen. A line of customers fills the aisle—most of them getting their food to go.

Sobsey seems a shade self-conscious. This is largely because of my presence. Ma, the confident boss of the kitchen, had agreed to have a member of the media along, but whether he understood the possible repercussions isn’t clear. This realization, along with the actual violations themselves, is frustrating Sobsey, who clearly isn’t out to embarrass anybody.

But Sobsey has a job to do, and he continues with the inspection. And though I suddenly feel like an intruder, an outside observer to some sacred, private ritual, I have a job to do as well, and the results are public information anyway.

The kitchen environment at Egg Roll King 2 is quite a contrast to Casale’s Halfway Club. Whereas Casale’s kitchen was quiet, easygoing and seemingly removed from the world, the kitchen at Egg Roll King 2 is bustling with energy and stainless steel. There are five or six guys back there, mostly speaking Chinese, working hard, as there is a line of hungry customers stretched away from the register.

There is a half-eaten bowl of fried rice on one of the counters. “OK, there can be no eating back here in the kitchen area,” Sobsey tells Ma. Sobsey begins looking around, checking temperatures. He tests for bleach in the washing compartment of the sink. It tests low; bleach hasn’t been added for a while.

“You need to use one cap full of bleach per gallon in the washing water,” Sobsey tells Ma.

Next to the sink is an unlabeled bottle. “Is this bleach?” Sobsey asks. “Don’t drink it to find out,” Sobsey smiles and laughs, trying to maintain a positive, easygoing rapport with Ma. It is bleach, and Sobsey tells Ma to go ahead and label it. Ma, using a felt tip marker, writes “BLEACH” in big letters on the bottle.

Washoe County Public Health Environmentalist Robert Sobsey examines a can of Raid, which he says, according to EPA guidelines, can never be used in a kitchen setting.

Photo By David Robert

“I don’t care if I can read it,” says Sobsey, gesturing towards the cooks, “I want these guys to be able to read it.” Ma smiles and labels the bottle in Chinese as well. Most of the other bottles and signs and things are already labeled in both English and Chinese.

There are other problems: a bag of onions on the floor (all food needs to be stored at least six inches off the floor) and a stem thermometer in need of recalibration. But the temperatures and storage areas check out fine. The employees, too, are doing fine. Sobsey watches for the cleanliness of food handler’s hands and fingernails, makes sure they aren’t wearing a lot of jewelry, that there are no open sores and, of course, that they are washing their hands.

“I’m usually in a kitchen long enough that I should see a food handler wash his hands at least once,” says Sobsey.

After the inspection, Sobsey sits down with Ma in the Egg Roll King dining room and fills out the violation sheet in his presence. Sobsey is clearly frustrated. Ma seems to be confused by some of the violations, but works just as hard at maintaining a polite relationship and complying with Sobsey’s wishes. Sobsey’s frustration is that Ma seems more than willing to comply, but not much interested in understanding the reasoning behind the regulations.

The big problem is the hand sink. Sobsey hammers away at the point—employees must wash their hands. It’s an important preventative, necessary for good hygiene and good for business because it looks good to customers. And if one of the sinks is turned off, employees can’t wash their hands.

Egg Roll King 2 is much busier than Casale’s, and customers at nearby tables take an avid interest in the proceedings, which adds a certain tension to the conversation. Sobsey is concerned enough about the sink that he tells Ma to write, in Chinese, “Do Not Turn Off Sink” on the English “Employees Must Wash Hands” sign above the sink.

Ma writes on the sign. “And your employees will know what that means, right?” Sobsey asks. “I wish I did.” Sobsey suggests that Ma get a plumber in right away.

“I’ll fix it later today,” Ma says sincerely.

“You can fix it?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re a better plumber than I am.” In an effort to alleviate the ponderous tone of the conversation, Sobsey tells an anecdote about how he has been building his own home and that he has begun recent plumbing projects but soon needed to enlist the help of a professional. Ma is amused and remains confident that he can repair the problem.

This visit to Egg Roll King 2 wraps up with a score of 91. As we leave, Sobsey complains, “That was a case where they knew we were coming, and still they couldn’t get it right.”

For Sobsey, the two guiding principles are education and communication. Proper food handling and hygiene and the proper temperatures for food storage and preparation are all natural byproducts of a good health and safety education.

The Washoe County District Health inspectors are mandated to conduct inspections of restaurants at least once a year. They also inspect snack bars, delis and coffee shops. In his many years as an inspector, Sobsey has encountered violations ranging from the trivial to the disturbing.

“The most shocking incidents are the most blatant,” he says. “Major infestations with insects crawling on the walls during daylight hours. . . . One local establishment—a big, well-respected restaurant, doing thousands of dollars a day—had no hot water for a week, until finally, after a week, a conscientious employee called us in.

“There again is that same principle: You can’t judge book by cover. But it’s different in the kitchen.”

The most common abuses are of times and temperatures, problems with reheating food and improper refrigeration and storage. The solution is in proper training and education for staff to know what might be important. Serious violations or a confirmed illness can prompt an inspector to recommend that the District Health Office revoke their permit, which may forever ruin a business.

Sobsey views this power with some trepidation. He speaks sadly of an incident a few years ago where he was contacted by the police because they found an inspection sheet on the body of an apparent suicide.

“It really freaked me out that my actions might have contributed to someone’s decision to take their own life,” he says.

That incident was unique. But there have been other incidents—the butcher knife attack, for example. Still, the role of health inspector is crucial, driven by a concern for public health and safety. The ability to condemn an establishment with a few flicks of the pen is scary but necessary.

“At some places, the bottom line is the bottom line, and they’re not concerned with health," says Sobsey. "In that case, you help them understand that preventing an illness in their business is a financial as well as moral concern."