Board of Health extends order for consultant, considers letter grading system for restaurants
The Tewksbury Board of Health met last night without member Katelyn Bugda Gwilt.
After approving April minutes, the board turned to the main topic of the evening, continuing severe violations of the food code by Jade East. The restaurant, at 433 Main St., was closed by the town in October 2022 for unsanitary conditions but reopened with conditions in place.
“We had them obtain a consultant to do weekly inspections,” said Health Director Shannon Gillis. “First, the consultant was there for six months and then after the six months we re-evaluated and still found that there were continuous priority violations. So we had them extended again. And since the extension on May 9, we have seen continuous temperature and cooling violations, which is why I had them come before the board tonight.”
Besides food code violations in October, there were issues with building compliance and fire safety. The restaurant was also closed down by the town in 2021.
Wai Kwan, the food safety consultant employed by Jade East, told the board that personal hygiene and cross-contamination awareness have improved and that the owner is making an effort, having purchased a new refrigerator and fans to improve air circulation in the kitchen. Kevin Lee, owner of Jade East, also appeared and said he has hired a new worker, who still needs training.
The board asked how long it may take to become fully compliant, the age of equipment, and whether the kitchen is kept cool.
“The kitchen has no AC,” said Kwan. “I will discuss this with the owner after the meeting.”
Member Bob Scarano asked for environmental improvements.
“When temperatures get to 80, 90 degrees outside, I want to know what the capacity for cooling is in that kitchen,” said Scarano. He also called out “relapses” related to employee turnover and asked for a plan to be put in place to anticipate staffing issues and recognize patterns that lead to critical violations.
Member Susan Amato, who, as owner of Angelina’s, has food service industry expertise, said ensuring food stays at the proper temperature is every staff member’s job and that restaurant kitchens typically do not have AC or heavy fans that would interfere with flames.
“Yes, it’s hot, but that’s what chefs are used to,” said Amato. “I don’t care if you’re at a major hotel in Boston, or if you’re at a regular small restaurant in Tewksbury, you cannot use AC because your exhaust fan is intake and outtake and it balances each other. So when you put AC into it, you’re messing up that balance.”
Amato also stressed the need to have ServSafe certified staff on site at all times.
“You have to have more people ServSafe certified, because you’re open a lot of hours and your chef is doing a lot of work,” she said. “Chefs have pride in what they do, and to have a consultant for six months? It’s wrong.”
The Tewksbury food safety regulation that the board approved this year includes a stipulation that there must be at least one ServSafe certified person on site at all times when a food service establishment is open. Gillis’ recommendations include having more employees trained in ServSafe; developing standard operating procedures for cooling, temperature logs, and training; and having a professional inspect the refrigeration units.
Amato added that a refrigeration company should come in at least twice per year. It was difficult to hear some responses from Lee or Kwan because they were allowed to speak from audience seats, without a microphone.
Ultimately, it was decided that the food safety consultant will continue for at least three additional months, during which time significant staff training must happen.
“The food safety consultant needs to remain engaged until there’s been three months of reports of no critical violations to show that things are on the right path,” said Barry. Kwon was charged with helping Lee identify a ServSave instructor. By end of day Monday, Gillis is to receive a training plan, and there will be a status update at the August meeting.
In her report, Gillis discussed:
A dementia presentation will be held on Aug. 24 from 10 – 11 a.m. at the Senior Center. Interested residents may call Susan Timmons at the Senior Center, at 978-640-4480, for more information or to hold a spot.
The Health Department had a Roger Williams student for a summer internship, and several of her projects — one on cyanobacteria and one on backyard BBQ food safety — are on display at the health office. A food safety brochure and thermometers are available for residents. A limited number of free Covid test kits are also available.
Lisa’s Pizza, which was shut down by the town for violations in 2020 and experienced a fire last year, should be open in the next month or so. Gillis is working on final inspections.
Member Melissa Braga said Tewksbury CARES has been on hiatus due to a lack of attendance at meetings.
“I even sent out for Zoom and in person, so if people couldn’t make it in person, but Zoom was empty, unfortunately,” said Braga. “It’s kind of sad that that is the case, but I’m hoping to put some good vibes out there, that people will start to come after the summer.”
Barry pointed out that in past years, the BoH would have assigned a member as a representative on the Tewksbury CARES board. He added that the BoH would like to make the group’s mandate more expansive.
“So it’s not just about substance abuse and alcoholism,” said Barry.
Barry also brought up initiatives for working groups to address body art and assigning letter grades to businesses under the BoH purview. Amato expressed interest in working on the latter initiative, perhaps combined with education for business owners.
“We’d like to recognize those establishments that are doing things correctly,” said Barry. “I think now’s a good time for us to really consider putting forth some type of a letter grade system.”
Gillis pointed out that Tewksbury may not be able to staff such an initiative.
“Let’s just say someone gets a bad letter grade, and we are unable to get back there until X amount of time, and they’re upset with us,” said Gillis. “Food is just one part of our job. That’s not all we do, so it’s hard to put that pressure on us.”
Scarano agreed that these systems are a tremendous amount of work but that there may be an opportunity to provide incentives to meet specific goals rather than issue pass/fail grades. A working group will consider options and discuss potential programs at the next meeting, which is scheduled for August 17.