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Thursday, Jun 8, 2023

Making the Grade

Specialty Restaurants Corp. takes its L.A. County Health Department inspections seriously. After all, as any diner can attest, anything less than an “A” can raise second thoughts, while a “C” will turn all but the bravest patrons scampering for other options. So the company, which operates 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant in Van Nuys, Castaway Restaurant in Burbank and Odyssey Restaurant in Granada Hills, won’t stand for anything less than a top grade at its establishments. And it doesn’t leave that to chance. Rather, it contracts with Everclean Services, an Agoura Hills consulting firm that helps food establishments and vendors ensure the safety of their food before it meets the mouths of hungry customers – assessing a facility’s food-handling practices from storage to stove, and kitchen to table. “If you think about it, we manufacture on the minute, so when you order a steak we go manufacture it right then and there,” said Jim McKennon, chief operating officer of the Anaheim-based restaurant group. “There are so many moving parts and pieces that exist in the kitchen, and the things that can go wrong are numerous. Using Everclean helps us make sure they don’t.” Specialty has used Everclean for about 14 years, not long after the company was established in response to the county’s decision in 1998 to start issuing letter grades that restaurants must prominently display in their windows. The fear of a poor grade has helped the company grow from a single inspector with eight clients to 160 field technicians that assess the food-handling practices of about 175 clients, including Sharky’s Woodfired Mexican Grill in Westlake Village; Cheesecake Factory Co. in Calabasas and Stonefire Grill in Westlake Village. Other national, high-profile clients include Panda Restaurant Group Inc. of Rosemead, Whole Foods Market Inc. of Austin, Texas and food services at the Kentucky Derby, NASCAR, and Staples Center. That kind of client base is a big reason the company was acquired for an undisclosed amount last year by UL LLC, the Northbrook, Ill. safety and quality assurance company that is best known for its Underwriters Laboratories business that certifies the safety of electrical devices. Everclean extended into the United Kingdom this year and is looking at more countries by 2015 as a result of its acquisition. “Food safety is our passion,” said Bill Flynn, operations director of Life and Health Sciences for UL and a member of the Everclean Services original management team who stayed after the buyout. “Our clients want to do more than pass a health department inspection; most of all, they want to do the right thing. And that’s where we come in. All we sell is safety.” Food pathogens Until the late 1990s, the restaurant-going public knew little about the thoroughness of any establishment’s behind-the-scenes sanitation practices. The only obvious indicator was whether or not the health department had shut it down. And while it’s difficult to hang a dollar sign on a health department’s A, B or C grade, most studies agree dropping a letter can result in a double-digit dip in revenue – worse still if an establishment is directly associated with a food-borne illness. To help restaurants deal with the new regulations, Everclean began operations in 1998 marketing a food-safety and sanitation auditing service to restaurants in the Southern California area. It was founded by Jack McShane who previously served as chief executive and moved over to join UL last year but retired in December. Among its competitors are Steritech Group Inc. of Orange and Ecolab of St. Paul, Minn. The company, which has field offices in Chicago, Boston and Enfield, Conn., conducts about 50,000 audits a year with the goal of routing out conditions that breed and harbor any of the 400 known food pathogens. Some of its customers operate hundreds or thousands of outlets. “Our basic inspection is modeled on the FDA food code, which is more comprehensive than health code requirements in many states,” Flynn said. “In addition to this, clients add their own, self-imposed expectations – above and beyond the health code.” A typical inspection might last two hours and the checklist can range between 100 to 1,000 items, depending on the client and the facility. The price of an audit ranges from about $125 to $500. The company declined to release profit or revenue figures. At its most basic, a site inspection looks for opportunities of contamination, including floor, wall, and ceiling cleaning and sanitation, employee health and hygiene, and food temperature from storage to preparation to serving. For just a taste of the detail involved, consider employee hand-washing. It isn’t a yes-or-no question. Hands must be washed for a sufficient period of time, up to a specified level of the arm, at the right temperature, with towels of a particular type available within measurable reach. And that’s the shortlist. “We look at Everclean as a subject matter specialist that deals with all things relative to safety and sanitation. They have a big, long checklist that covers all of those,” said McKennon of Specialty Restaurants. “They keep us from forming any bad habits and stay focused on extraordinary cleanliness. As a result, we pass all of our health inspections.” Global strategy Everclean also provides additional training to employees on topics like recent food and health laws. Restaurant consultant Jerry Prendergast with Prendergast & Associates in Culver City said food-safety consultants bring additional knowledge the restaurateurs often lack. “To begin with, they’re up-to-date on the latest health department codes and requirements,” he said. “The judging criteria are complicated, and codes change constantly. It’s their job to keep up with all of it and understand the implications.” Flynn said the company works in “synergy” with public health departments, but most clients hold themselves to an even higher standard. The company is now grappling with the big new challenge of “emerging pathogens” – new bad bugs that are evolving. That leaves Everclean with a lot on its plate. After a year under the UL umbrella, Everclean Services is building a global strategy that includes audits for U.S. restaurant groups with franchises in the U.K., Asia and Latin America. It is leveraging UL’s existing footprint, which spans 150 facilities serving clients in more than 100 countries. “UL has evolved to meet the demands of an expanding definition of safety and what safety means to the consumer,” said Roy Lamothe, vice president of Global Food and Nutraceuticals with UL, in an email. “Today, more consumers are more concerned with the products that go into their bodies and specifically the food they eat. The acquisition of Everclean has helped us begin to address challenges in the food industry/supply chain where safety is a growing concern.” Everclean is also adding occupational safety and brand analysis to the menu, though food safety will remain the core competency. Laura O’Hare, a restaurant consultant with Hospitality Collective in Los Angeles, said no restaurant chain should think it can’t improve its food safety procedures. “I worked with Everclean when I was with a large restaurant chain,” she said. “They were very thorough in their inspections, spot inspections, and instructions. It was a wake-up call.” Staff Reporter Stephanie Forshee contributed to this story.

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