Restaurants remain open despite failed health inspections

Jenan Taha

At least 20 restaurants in zip codes surrounding UT Austin are continuing their operations with few repercussions despite failing or receiving low scores from the health department in the past three years.

 According to data from the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Service Department, several Austin restaurants — including Thai Kitchen, Las Cazuelas and Ken’s Donuts — have failed or received low scores at least four times in the past three years. Restaurants are given a score from zero to 100, with a 70 or above considered a passing score, and are typically inspected no more than twice a year. 

These restaurants have had no permanent action taken against them despite their low scores, because of a lack of resources in the health department, said Vincent Delisi, assistant division manager of the Environmental Health Services Department.

Delisi said the city’s restaurants are growing at a rate of about 3 percent each year, making it difficult to fulfill the city’s need for inspections. With more than 700 restaurants in just the central and downtown area, this means thousands of inspections must be carried out annually.

“We are doing our best to protect public health, but more inspections would probably provide greater protection,” Delisi said. “Without the additional inspectors, we are unable to meet the demand for inspections that is required.”

 A restaurant must fail four inspections in a three-year period before its food permits are suspended, Delisi said.

Despite this, all of the consistently failing restaurants are still in operation and scores have had little effect on their business.

According to health department data, Thai Kitchen received the same violations several times in a row, including evidence of rodents, insects and cross-contamination of foods. The restaurant received passing scores in 2014 and 2015, despite inspectors finding evidence of rodents and insects both times.

 Tom Seneewongs, owner of Thai Kitchen, said health inspection scores can often be inaccurate or unfair. In the past three years, Thai Kitchen has received six low or failing scores, the second highest amount in Austin.

 “A lot times it’s the luck of draw,” Seneewongs said in an email. “You can get a really young inspector trying to make their mark and picks off everything. Then you get an older person that gives you suggestions on how to improve but take(s) points off every little thing.”

 Salvation Pizza on West 34th Street, which received low or failing scores in the past three years, faced almost no consequences from the health department. 

General Manager Myristyl Chamberlain said the low scores did not seriously affect the restaurant’s operations or reputation.

 “We just had a health inspection, and we’re doing great,” Chamberlain said. “They’re not trying to come in and shut us down. They’re just trying to make sure everything is how it should be.”

Salvation Pizza’s latest failure was because of incorrect food-holding temperatures. The restaurant was shut down for less than 24 hours and reopened, managers said.

Delisi said more than 90 percent of all restaurants score an 80 or higher on inspections, while those who score low may be because of the inspection’s circumstances.

“When we make our inspection, we are seeing a snapshot of the establishment — the conditions of the establishment at the time of our inspection,” Delisi said. “We can only see what we see when we’re there.”