NEWBURY — The Board of Health took swift action in addressing repeated food safety and sanitation violations at Plum Island Grille.
But just what steps will be taken to investigate a complaint filed against the health inspector by the owner of the popular island restaurant remain vague.
At a meeting on Thursday afternoon, Health Agent Deborah Rogers reviewed numerous violations she and the health inspector, Virginia Bacon, documented at the restaurant in August. In response, the Health Board issued 10 action items chef and restaurant owner Francis Broadbery must take to keep his doors open.
Rogers noted that the violations found at inspections held Aug. 13 and Aug. 20 were not new to the restaurant. Similar issues were found during inspections in January and May.
Rogers said that during an initial inspection last month, the kitchen was found to be unsanitary and the young staff working were not following standard operating procedures for cleanliness and sanitation. The walk-in cooler showed signs of leaking and “huge gaps” that would affect the temperature and rodent controls.
Broadbery previously told her the outdoor sheds would only be used to store decorations, but during the Aug. 13 inspection, flour, sugar and other foodstuffs were found inside.
There was no “first in, first out” procedure in place to manage the inventory. Of the three freezers in use, two were noncommercial and at least one was plugged in with an extension cord — a possible building code violation. Rogers described the inside of the freezers as “deplorable.”
Broadbery contends that after the Aug. 13 inspection, Rogers said if he voluntarily closed his doors to address the problems, the public would not be made aware of the violations.
In a letter of complaint submitted to town officials late last month, he charges that Bacon yelled and repeatedly swore at him in front of his customers and staff, many of whom he says expressed concern for his well being afterward. He also objected to the timing of the inspections — at dinner service during his busiest season of the year.
But Rogers saw it differently. She reported that Broadbery was given three options after her initial inspection: the Board of Health could close the premises with a red sign placed in public view on the front door; he could voluntarily shut down and cite any reason to the public that he wished for doing so; or he could reject the findings of the inspection and invite the people dining that evening to walk through his kitchen and observe its condition for themselves.
She insists that inspectors spoke to Broadbery about the violations in an area away from his customers. She described the difficulty the department had in scheduling a time for another inspection that worked for everyone, noting requests Broadbery made to accommodate his schedule.
Once Broadbery began raising objections, she asked an inspector from the Newburyport Health Department to do a follow-up inspection in August. The city inspector noted where improvements had been made but also found multiple “non-critical” violations still outstanding.
“My concern is the health of the public, obviously,” said Health Board member Elaine Byrne. Of Broadbery, she said, “He has a good product. He’s just not presenting it in a good way.”
Attorney Michael Paige of Newburyport represented Broadbery at the meeting; the town administrator and town counsel were also present but did not speak during the session.
The top action item was the need for at least one person who is ServSafe, Choke Safe and Allergy Awareness certified on the premises at all times during the hours of operation. Broadbery has 30 days to meet the requirement for ServSafe certification, but just 48 hours for the other two. When Paige pushed back on the quick turnaround time, he was reminded that the Choke Safe requirement is state statute.
“According to state law, if he wants to be open, he’s got to have it,” Health Board Chairman Steve Fram said.
Broadbery will have two weeks to find a professional cleaner and a licensed food consultant to make weekly visits to the restaurants. He has 30 days to replace flooring in the kitchen and bar areas with an approved, nonporous material.
“We’re going to get a lot of kickback for this,” Byrne acknowledged.
Effective immediately, no food, refrigerators or equipment can be stored in the outdoor sheds; and only commercial refrigerators or freezers are allowed.
Within two weeks, the leaks and gaps in the cooler must be repaired; the dishwasher racks —which Rogers described as “caked with debris” — should be replaced immediately and shelving replaced as needed.
The handwashing sink — described as “rusty, flakey, and filthy” — needs replacing or repair and sanitation within 30 days.
Outside, the restaurant is overgrown with weeds, trash, an oil drum and numerous propane gas tanks. The board gave Broadbery 24 hours from the receipt of its notification letter to clean up the property.
“That’s just not reasonable on its face,” Paige argued. He asked if records show that other restaurants with violations had similar demands placed on them, to which Rogers responded, “I don’t think I’ve seen a restaurant as bad as this one.”
“The next time he needs to be closed, it won’t be voluntary,” Fram said.
Early in the meeting, Fram announced that the only agenda item was a discussion of public information regarding the inspections at the restaurant.
No discussion of any personnel records or problems would occur, he stressed — an apparent reference to Broadbery’s written complaint citing what he described as verbally abusive and unprofessional behavior directed toward him by Bacon during the Aug. 20 inspection.
Later, when asked by a reporter what the general procedure is for addressing complaints against a Health Department employee, Fram responded, “I refer it to Human Resources — and that’s all I’m going to say on it.”
“I had an extensive meeting with the town’s attorney to go over the incident with Mrs. Bacon and he is starting a full internal investigation,” Broadbery said after the meeting.