Late at night, while all of Tampa Bay is fast asleep, WTSP’s Beau Zimmer sits at his desk scanning thousands of health inspection reports on area restaurants. Sometimes, the nearby morning news crew will hear him scream.
“When they hear AHH! they know I’ve found something,” Zimmer said. “These reports leave little to the imagination. They’re really specific about the texture of rodent droppings, soft or hard. That’s important because it tells you how fresh it is.”
Zimmer has delivered 10 News’ “Restaurant Red Alerts” on a weekly basis since January. The feature, which is broadcast every Wednesday at 11 p.m., followed in the footsteps of ABC Action News’ “Dirty Dining with Wendy Ryan,” which first aired in 2003. Both follow in a long tradition of culinary gotcha journalism. Zimmer did earlier stints as a kitchen detective at stations in Louisville and Gainesville, and now these kinds of shows can be found all over the tube. The Food Network is premiering its own dirty restaurant series, Health Inspectors, on Fri., Oct. 26.
“I have heard of Health Inspectors,” Zimmer said. “And I can only imagine if you were to look on a national scale, some of the things you might find.”
He’s certainly found enough horrors on the local level. (It’s important to note that all of the restaurants mentioned in this article were cited in past inspections and have since tended to their citations accordingly.)
Springtime on the beach. Zimmer found a complaint from a family that had visited Sandy’s on Indian Rocks Beach for breakfast.
“The child goes, ‘Daddy, there’s something in my orange juice.’ Zimmer said. “It was a large rodent dropping just floating in the orange juice.”
Zimmer was curious about how someone would be able to spot rat poop in a cup.
“So I went to the pet store and asked if I could purchase some rodent droppings,” Zimmer said. “I bought two or three because I wanted to see how it would look if it floated. Sure enough, it floats just like the stuff in the toilet.”
He keeps the remaining droppings at his desk, right next to the tarballs collected from a beach after the Gulf oil spill. (Sandy’s received a clean bill of health following the complaint.)
It’s not unusual to find the occasional stray hair in a restaurant meal. But one of Zimmer’s stories reported on a more unexpected human artifact, found by a woman inside the ice cream she sampled from an Asian buffet.
“She takes a bite and bites into something hard, she thought it was a piece of plastic lining from the ice cream bin,” Zimmer said. “She takes it out of her mouth and it was a fingernail, an artificial French-tipped painted fingernail.”
Yep, some finely manicured lady lost a nail mid-scoop.
“Why wouldn’t you go and retrieve it?” Zimmer said. “The woman who bit into the nail happened to be a nurse. so she knew all about what grows under fingernails.”
But that nail was artificial. “You want me to tell you about the actual flesh?” Zimmer asks.
In February, an employee at Progress Energy in downtown St. Petersburg went to lunch at Joey Brooklyn’s Pizza. She ordered the salad, but not the fingertip sliver that came along for the ride.
“She’s chewing and tastes something that’s not supposed to be there,” Zimmer said. “When she pulled it out, she saw a fingerprint on it.”
Zimmer does say that Joey Brooklyn’s cleaned up their act. The restaurant gave his news crew a full tour and won a perfect score on their follow-up state inspection.
Sometimes, Zimmer reports live on location. For one of his first stories, he looked into a Kenneth City pizza place with a serious roach problem. The restaurant, Cici’s Pizza, had been shut down due to the infestation, but management had released a statement shortly after the closure saying that the problem had been fixed. So Zimmer and his cameraman visited one night after hours to check on the conditions first-hand.
“The light on the camera shines through the restaurant window and we saw all this black stuff scatter,” Zimmer said. “As we looked into the kitchen from the window, there were roaches crawling on the booths, in the kitchen, running everywhere. This was after the state allowed them to reopen.”
Right after Zimmer’s report, Cici’s corporate closed the restaurant for several months, ripping out the interior and redoing everything.
“They invited me back when they reopened and presented me with a plate of pizza,” Zimmer said. “I never in a million years would have eaten there, but since they made the effort to clean up I had a few slices. Trust me, there were things going through my mind.”
Given what Zimmer has seen and smelled, does he ever eat out?
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