Special Report: Problem Restaurant Inspections

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(Memphis) We have dirty details about downtown, Memphis restaurants, places you've likely patronized. 

From rats running across a kitchen to stuff that could make you sick, WREG On Your Side Investigators ask tough questions for the government agency in charge of keeping our food safe.

People from around the world come to be a part of it.  "It's the birthplace of the blues," says one tourist.  The two things synonymous with Memphis are of course music and food.

"When you think of Memphis, what do you think of," I ask. "Beale Street and barbeque," responds another visitor.

However, one look at pictures sent to WREG and you may think twice about who gets your dining dollars.  The photographs show dirty utensils and pans, and food storage that's a potential health hazard.  

A former employee of Pearl's Oyster House, who doesn't want his face shown on camera says the restaurant he used to help manage had a rodent problem.

The tipster said, "There are rat holes noticeably everywhere. You could see rat droppings in the kitchen." He sent video that appears to back up his claim.

A different person sent us pictures, taken this summer, of what the person says is a kitchen at Flight. The person says the same upscale, restaurant that boasts awards and a big reputation, doesn't put enough emphasis on keeping the kitchen clean.

Both tipsters say not only are these restaurants putting customers at risk, but the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department is too.

"Everybody knows who the inspector is, so there's no telling health scores that should have been lower than they are," says the Pearl's tipster.

"Someone...does not know their job..." says the tipster who also claims some of the photos are from a basement kitchen at Flight that, until our investigation, health inspectors didn't even know about. "My concern is that since that is where the food is stored and prepped you would think it needs to be inspected," the tipster adds in an email.

We took these concerns to Dr. Tyler Zerwekh who heads up the Environmental Division at the Health Department. He said, "We will obviously go back and re-examine these specific establishments and we will use this as a training guide moving forward for the environmentalists."

They did. Three days after our interview, WREG received an email from the Health Department, stating they'd made an informal visit to Flight and indeed discovered a "...second area...used for food preparation and catering..."

While at Flight, an inspector noted meat stored at incorrect temperatures, bleach and bug spray shelved with flour and sugar, along with dirty pans and utensils. Plus, their current inspection score wasn't even posted!

The restaurant was hit with enough critical violations to knock its score down to a 72.

The inspector allowed Flight to make immediate corrections which boosted it to an 86.
This isn't the first time the restaurant scored in that range. 

During a September 7th inspection, Flight got a 76, but also with immediate corrections, wound up with an 86.

We contacted Flight multiple times and went there for an on camera interview but management refused. 

They did respond by email and left a voice mail, prior to the health department's last inspection.

Flight's Russ Graham said, "...We have a very, strict in-house cleaning regimen that we pride ourselves in and how clean we are.  I think our record speaks for itself on our health scores..."

After our investigation, the Health Department ordered Flight to close the prep kitchen until it is "...brought into compliance with acceptable standards..."

Pearl's went from a 67 in August to an 87 in October. "We have had a rodent problem. As a matter of fact, we are standing on the source of it, which is downtown Memphis infrastructure that needs to be improved," says the new, Pearl's General Manager KC Lambert as we stood outside the restaurant on South Main.

He said, "The health department came in and actually did us justice by pointing out some things that needed to get fixed and we fixed them."

Something else that needs fixing is the way customers can see inspection scores online.

When we first got the complaints, WREG On Your Side Investigators tried to check online scores, only to find scores more than a year behind.  "We are having issues with the database here in Memphis," adds Zerwekh.

Other cities aren't having the same problems. Cities like Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga use the same state system to enter inspections, and they're up to date. Dr. Zerwekh says they plan to begin entering inspections once the state gets its new site up and running.

Until then, you can call the health department for a score, at 901-222-9203, or of course, visit your favorite spot and check it out for yourself.  

On the other hand, experts say you don't really need a score to determine if a restaurant is making the grade.

Fred Pierson is a consultant with more than 20 years in the restaurant industry. "You can eyeball as a consumer from the outside, you can look at a lot of these things and there's an indication that there's something wrong," says Pierson.

Local restaurant owner Felicia Willett prides herself on having a clean restaurant and reputation and says diners should demand the same, no matter where they eat.

"Absolutely, you've got to know what you're eating, because things can be masked," Willett says.

A spokesperson with the Tennessee Department of Health says its new site should be up and running by the first of the year.  Customers may have to wait until then to get the most up to date local, scores online.

Flight 11/8/12

Flight 9/7/12

Pearl's Oyster House 10/29/12

Pearl's Oyster House 8/24/12