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The Urbanist

A Day in the Life of City Health Inspectors, a.k.a. the Sanitarians

We go hunting for fruit flies and tepid chicken tenders with two workers from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Illustration by Dan Page
Illustration: Dan Page

Hi, who’s in charge today?” asks Gerrin Cheek Butler, a petite woman in her 40s with tight black curls and a friendly smile, as we enter the Domino’s Pizza in the South Loop Marketplace strip mall. The handful of workers bustling behind the counter freeze, blissfully unaware of the bomb she’s about to drop.

Hint: She’s not here for the pepperoni special.

“I’m from the health department,” says Butler, whose actual title is director of food protection services at the Chicago Department of Public Health. She introduces her colleague, the ironically named Annette Grimes, a perky 50-something woman in jeans and perfect makeup. A city health inspector for almost 17 years, Grimes gets right down to business as Butler observes.

“I’m going to need to see your business license, sanitation certificate, food handler certificates, and pest control certificates,” she says, with the clipped delivery of a state trooper kicking off a particularly painful traffic stop. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a four-star hot spot, a corner grocer, or a pizza chain: For Grimes, the slack-jawed look of shock—this time on the face of the young assistant manager—is as familiar as the sight of mice droppings and improperly stored taco meat.

The kid nervously adjusts his visor and hightails it to the back office, where we hear him rummaging for the documents. Meanwhile, Grimes preps for battle. She slips on a pair of plastic gloves, pulls her shoulder-length hair into a tight bun, and diligently tucks it into a hairnet. (If she finds a strand in the mozzarella, it won’t be hers.) She pops open her laptop and peeks at the report filed for this location by one of her fellow sanitarians—that’s really what they call each other—roughly a year ago.

Last year, this restaurant failed two inspections. The violations were relatively minor: some food debris on the walls, worn caulking around the back wash bin, a couple dozen fruit flies fluttering around. Not the most appetizing stuff, sure, but not supergross, either. Nothing like the rodent-infested horror show of a basement of a not-in-Chicago restaurant that Butler describes as her worst case ever. “It was like the floor was moving,” she says. “Food prep came to a stop, and the business had to usher all the customers out.”

Not passing is actually relatively common—nearly 4,300 of the city’s 16,000-plus food service establishments failed an inspection in 2016. Much rarer are forced shutdowns. According to Butler, there were only 132 closures last year, triggered by truly critical violations that posed an immediate health risk: an employee caught stirring a vat of curry with his hairy arm, say, or a dead cat discovered in the deep fryer (both stories from a disturbing health inspector thread on Reddit).

But so few shutdowns might be because there aren’t enough inspectors looking. According to state law, establishments classified as “high-risk” (basically, any restaurants that extensively handle raw ingredients—so most of them) need to be examined every six months. Last year, an audit of 2015 inspections showed that the health department met this standard less than half of the time. That’s a lot of cockroaches roaming around unchecked.

The city has pledged to spring for 19 more food inspectors to help the cause. But for now, all that stands between us and a long night in the bathroom are the 38 currently on staff. (According to the audit, the ideal number would be 94.)

At least we have Grimes on our side. Let’s just say the heat coming from the pizza ovens is nothing compared with what the crew at Domino’s is feeling right now from the no-nonsense former Jewel deli manager. I follow the lifelong Southwest Sider into the kitchen as she shines her flashlight under the sink, behind prep areas, inside coolers—anywhere that something disgusting could be hiding. There’s a leaky faucet that needs fixing. Some food buildup in the drain. So far, so good. Easy fixes.

She instructs the assistant manager to open a box of chicken strips in the walk-in cooler and begins the first of many interrogations. “Do those arrive here cooked?” she asks. “Is there a date when they were received?” She shoves the metal tip of her thermometer into the meat. The strips are below 40 degrees—good to go—but the refrigerators under the front prep area are at 42. Luckily for Domino’s, the city allows for a two-degree margin of error. If the reading had come in at, say, 50 degrees, they’d have to toss all the food.

Peeking out the back door, Grimes notices a bunch of aprons hanging on a hook in the alley. The assistant manager tells her that one of their delivery drivers washes them by hand and likes to dry them in the sun. “Well, you can’t do that,” says Grimes exasperatedly. (Just think about all the bacteria in an alley—and then imagine those germs carried in on the clothing worn by the person tossing your pizza dough. Yeah.) “You need to get those laundered for real.”

Back inside, Grimes points to a small gap under the front door. “You can see there used to be a weather strip that’s been removed,” she says. I ask if she’s concerned about bugs getting in. Nope. Worse. And then I remember how flexible mouse rib cages are. Mice could crawl right through, and then it’s tiny pizza party time.

Over the course of the 90-minute inspection, the biggest problem for this Domino’s is that the staff can’t produce the food handler certificates, documents that prove employees have a working knowledge of food safety and general hygiene. The store will have five days to locate them or else receive another citation.

As Grimes heads out to inspect the Festa Italiana happening on Taylor Street (yes, even fairs get the once-over), I ask her the question that’s been on my mind all day—whether her job makes it tough to enjoy eating out.

“You have to turn it off,” she says. “But when I’m going out with friends, they know better than to let me face the kitchen.”

Surely people must prod her for information, though?

“I legally cannot say anything,” she says. “But I’ll say this: After 17 years, if someone asks me about a certain place, and I say, no, I don’t want to eat there, they don’t go any further.”

I’ll have what she’s having.

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