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Health officials warn of possible rise in food inspection failures, citations among staffing shortages

Posted at 12:07 PM, Jul 13, 2023

SOUTH EUCLID, Ohio — The struggle continues for local restaurants trying to fill open staffing positions as many of them still trying to catch a break from the pandemic. Now, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health (CCBH) is concerned this could lead to a growing number of failed sanitation inspections and citations.

The Ohio restaurant association reports only 13% of businesses are fully staffed. Their data shows, rising labor costs are playing a role as 37% of businesses say they’re dealing with up to 5% hikes in costs.

Mike Simens, owner of Mr. Chicken, says it’s been that way since the pandemic. He has about 120 employees stretched between his six Mr. Chicken locations, but like many other food spots, he says a 10 to 15% boost in hires would ease the burden of filling shifts and curb the CCBH’s concerns.

“Every restaurant right now would like more staff," Simens said.

When it comes to cleanliness, Simens says staff are trained to minimize the mess, and the process is more involved now, post-COVID. All his staff are ServSafe certified.

Guests today have a lot more critical eye than they did before COVID, and rightly so,” Simens explained. We have a shift list that every shift this is what they have to clean. Then, we have a deep cleaning list. So, every day of the week you attack one piece of equipment.”

The restaurant design across the six family-owned locations certainly helps. From fiberglass walls, stainless steel appliances and walls sitting 6 inches off the ground, Simens says his restaurants are easy to keep clean when they’re properly staffed. He says keeping the lobby and bathrooms clean is sometimes a challenge in the evenings and has forced occasional service cuts.

“When COVID ended, the first thing the guests were saying to us is, 'Open your lobby back up,' and the first thing we said back is, 'I’m sorry we can’t. We don’t have enough staff,'” Simens recalled. “When a person walks in the door they expect a clean restaurant. So, when you can’t give them that you need to close it.”

According to the CCBH, five things are key for healthy eats and a passing inspection — having an approved food source, thorough food cooking, proper food storage and temperature, clean and sanitary facilities, and good personal hygiene and health among staff.

“Every sanitarian is inspecting at least once or twice a week. They're hitting a place that has some critical violations,” said Suzanne Rusch, CCBH, Food Protection Unit Manager.

Rusch says a good 95% of Cuyahoga County operators, including Simens, are keeping up with department standards. However, her team is giving out more warnings, resources and grace to help struggling businesses stay afloat.

They're trying to be creative and do more with less. They're smart people. And, you know, we trust the folks that make our food,” she said.

CCBH is planning a food safety job fair in October to help with staffing and health demands.