How to tell if a restaurant is clean or not

Sometimes it's hard to tell on the surface, but there are a few things you can do

A few years ago, in a Washington D.C. area iHop, I had an extremely disgusting experience. 

Well, it was actually my dad who had the disgusting experience -- I was just with him -- but what he encountered affected me a great deal to this very day.

While waiting for our breakfast, Dad took a sip of his orange juice and made a face that indicated something was very wrong. He then said to me, “The glass tastes like an egg,” and he found a dried yellow substance on it,  probably an egg yolk, which made both of us gag.

And since then, I always do a glass and silverware inspection before I go into an iHop or diner, and I’ll also do the same at restaurants on occasion, because you never really know how well an establishment is cleaned.

According to the CDC, one in six Americans become sick from foodborne illnesses, 128,000 needs to be hospitalized and 3,000 people lose their lives. The government agency also says about 36% of documented outbreaks are because restaurants are handling foods improperly.

A ways back, a national news show did a segment on the top-ten fast-food places that had the dirtiest locations, which were caused by cooks and cashiers handling foods with bare or dirty hands or employees being sick and coughing or sneezing around food, and these were just some of the troubling things the news team found.

The top-ten fast-food places that had the dirtiest restaurants were, Burger King at No. 1, then Arby’s, Wendy’s, Hardees, Dairy Queen, Jack in the Box, Subway, KFC, McDonald’s and Taco Bell, which means you may want to do an extra eye check when going to these places to determine if everything is cleaned properly, namely the trays, tables,  floors and the bathroom, and if you see something you should definitely say something to one of the workers, experts say.

Speak up

And although most would probably assume that everyone would speak to a restaurant owner or manager when seeing a potential health violation, apparently, the opposite is true.

According to a study conducted by Harris Interactive and released by Tork, a company which offers a host of cleaning products and services, 25% of consumers said they wouldn’t notify a restaurant worker if they noticed something was dirty or unkempt.

And out of the 75% of people in the U.S. who said they would complain, many of them admitted they would only be somewhat likely to speak up, and not definitely, which not only lets a restaurant off the hook for its uncleanliness, but it also forces other guests to encounter unsanitary conditions, which will probably continue unless the restaurant is held accountable.

In another Harris survey it was found that 27% of consumers don’t like it when restaurant workers use cloths to clean tables as opposed to single-use sanitary napkins, while 46% said it didn’t matter how tables were cleaned as long as they were cleaned properly.

Donna Duberg, who’s an expert on foodborne illnesses caused by restaurants and also an assistant professor at St. Louis University, agrees with the survey results and says waiters or busboys using reusable rags to clean tables should be the first sign that an establishment may not be paying attention to the necessary details when it comes to being clean and diminishing the risk of getting people sick.

“Public hygiene, specifically in areas where consumers eat, is top-of-mind with the American public and restaurant owners stand to lose a lot if they aren’t paying attention to what is important to their customers,” she said in a published interview.

“A simple change in practice, such as using single-use, nonwoven food service wipers to clean eating and cooking surfaces, can create a healthier work environment and a more positive consumer experience.”

Pay attention

Other experts say consumers should pay attention to a restaurant’s bathroom to determine how well it’s keeping the kitchen, tables and silverware cleaned, and if a restroom happens to be messy and wet, it should definitely raise some concerns.

“There are restaurants where the washrooms are always clean; they always smell good and there is never water on the floor,” said Tom Bianco, the CEO of Centripetal Management,  a restaurant consulting firm in Atlanta, Ga.

“If a restaurant takes that kind of pride in the hygiene of their washrooms, it is a good indication that they are going to take that kind of pride in the food and in the quality of the product," he said. 

"If a customer goes into a restaurant where the washrooms are disgusting, that customer tends to view those washrooms as an indicator of how things are run. If the operator isn’t willing to take the time to clean the bathrooms, customers will wonder what else the operator is slacking on.”

And it’s not only bathrooms that restaurant patrons should be worried about. Many experts say restaurant ice machines can be filled with loads of bacteria and in some cases researchers have found the same amount of bacteria in ice cubes that happens to be in toilet water.

In May of 2012, an Indiana news team visited a total of 18 restaurants in the local area and asked for cups of ice that were then given to a scientific lab for testing. The restaurants tested were a combination of fancy eateries, diners, casino restaurants and fast-food places and among the 18 places visited, a number of them had ice cubes and cups that contained E.coli and other bacteria.

E. coli

Dr. Rebecca Wong, a microbiologist who tested the cups of ice, says a common way for ice cubes to become contaminated is from employees using the bathroom, not washing their hands and dipping those hands into the ice machine to prepare drinks.

 “You have this stuff swimming in your cup and it’s not supposed to be there,” she said. "These restaurants should definitely take some action to find out where this contamination is coming from."

 But obviously, not all places do, so consumers should use their eyes and ears to determine if there are any violations being committed and also visit government websites that can give you a restaurant's history when it comes to cleanliness or receiving health violations.

The address of these types of sites differ from state to state, so it’s best to do a Google search to find the specific websites for your area, and most of all, if you see something that looks a little off, report it, as it’s one of your many duties as a consumer, because we all need to share information to keep each other safe and healthy.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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