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?
“That’s the sad thing, I eat out for almost every meal,” Zimmer said. “I work late hours and don’t have time to go home and cook. But I’m very selective about where I eat.”
The biggest indicator of a problem in the kitchen?
“Check the bathrooms. If they’re dirty, chances are something else is,” Zimmer said.
Some people say they’d rather not know about his findings.
“I say to them, wouldn’t you want to know if someone hawked a loogie in your food?”
After nearly 10 years of weekly reporting, ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan, the creator of “Dirty Dining” on her station, knows all of Tampa Bay restaurants’ dirty little secrets.
She pitched the idea for the series when she began at the station in 2003.
“I was eating out a lot and observed really dirty conditions,” Ryan said. “At the time, no one in the newsroom knew which state agency was in charge of inspecting.”
Ryan says “Dirty Dining” wasn’t originally planned as a weekly feature, but the public ate it up (so to speak) after just one week on the air.
“Back then, the inspections were not online, and I had to drive to the local Tampa office and get photocopies of each report,” Ryan said. “My old news director at the time, Bill Berra, even had me report on dirty restaurants twice a week, if we could find them.” (The feature is no longer running weekly, says Ryan; station management has decided to profile only restaurants cited with critical violations after more than one inspection.)
Some of the kitchens she’s visited still haunt her to this day.
“I remember standing with one owner in her kitchen as live roaches were crawling on the counter behind her!” Ryan said. “When I pointed it out to her, she tried to stand in front of it to block my view, as if to hide them. She kept saying everything was fine and clean. She also told me the live chicken in the cage in her storage area was a ‘pet’ and she wasn’t going to cook it.”
One of her most terrifying rodent stories involved an area bakery; their daily bread came with rodent feces baked inside.
“Inspectors found dead rats inside the mixing bowl of dough and on trays alongside product,” Ryan said. “They also documented rodent droppings inside baked goods.”
Ryan also recalled a restaurant that had over 400 rodent droppings in the kitchen and dining area.
“That might be the highest number of rodent droppings I’d ever seen documented,” Ryan said. “Normally, they will write ‘too many to count.’”
Human bodily fluids inevitably found their way into Ryan’s stories. There was the hot dog cart filled with old water bottles of urine, kept in the cooler right next to the food.
“The male employee explained to the inspector that he didn’t have time to go to the bathroom so he’d just use the bottles to pee in,” Ryan said.
He also didn’t have a sink to wash his hands.
She’s received emails from viewers who found hair, fingernails, skin and scabs — even fresh human blood in a to-go box. And those aren’t the strangest finds; she also read reports of diners discovering a rusty nail, a rubber glove, safety pins, rubber bands and staples.
It should come as no surprise that a reporter with a camera doing a story on a restaurant’s dirty kitchen has elicited some scary responses from owners. During a conversation with a sports bar owner, Ryan asked him about the numerous flies on food and equipment.
“His response? ‘People eat flies every day. It’s no big deal.’ By the way, he said that on camera, and we used it in the story,” she said.
Another owner responded to his repeated roach infestations over a two-year period as “part of living here in Florida, and every restaurant is infested with them.” The owner told Ryan she needed to “get over it.”
Some of the stories even made seasoned photographers queasy.
“I used to work with a photographer who told me he’d rather take video of a dead body in the middle of a street than shoot a Dirty Dining kitchen,” Ryan said.
She’s seen overflowing maggot infestations, woodland creatures (both fuzzy and ferocious) dining openly on kitchen ingredients, raw chicken hung from a clothesline to thaw in the sun, and a kitchen with raw pieces of meat dripping blood over ready-to-eat salads.
How does she go out to eat, after nearly 10 years of getting up close and very personal with some of the area’s nastiest kitchens?
“It’s hard to eat out, but I do it anyway,” Ryan said. “Many times when my husband and I walk in, the first thing they will say is, ‘Are you here for a Dirty Dining story?’ But no doubt I’ve stopped going to restaurants with serious critical violations after pulling their poor inspection reports.”
So, anyone still hungry?
Agree, Saigon Deli, the real one, not the other one across the street.
We ate there and the food was excellent. You need to go back and have…
lets not forget the old elephant foot IPA in the 16 oz cans from Tampa…