Steamboat’s Sweet Pea violations about more than seating
Sanitation, food storage conditions influence county’s decision to revoke license
September 17, 2010
Steamboat Springs — County officials' decision Tuesday to close Sweet Pea Market and Cafe, the first license revocation of its kind in Routt County in at least 30 years, involved issues that go beyond the popular downtown eatery's seating capacity and restrooms.
Officials said those issues include several other health and building code violations at Sweet Pea this summer — including food stored beneath an unshielded sewer line in a basement walk-in cooler installed without a permit — along with public health and safety concerns, accountability issues for the estimated 250 food establishments in Routt County, restaurant inspection compliance and even potential tourism impacts. The Routt County Board of Commissioners, acting as the Routt County Board of Health, said those factors contributed to its Tuesday decision to revoke Sweet Pea's retail food establishment license until at least Nov. 15.
"It's important for us all to follow the rules," Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said. "This is even more important when it comes to public health."
Although Sweet Pea's grocery market operates separately from its cafe, the business uses one food establishment license, meaning both components shut down as of midnight Wednesday.
Tuesday's Board of Health hearing was required by state law after the Routt County Department of Environmental Health assessed three fines of $1,000 each — July 28, Aug. 6 and Aug. 20 — to Sweet Pea owners Jonathon Hieb and Katherine Zambrana. The owners paid all three fines.
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Mike Zopf, director of the county's environmental health department, showed the Board of Health documentation of seven notifications of noncompliance and seven follow-up inspections at Sweet Pea between July 6 and Sept. 3.
The violation that led to the inspections, fines and hearing involved Sweet Pea's operation during the summer with far more seating capacity than its one restroom allowed, according to state health regulations. Sweet Pea received notification about that regulation in a letter dated May 20.
County senior environmental health specialist Heather Savalox said she saw the noncompliant seating June 22 and notified Hieb that day about the need for a second bathroom.
Carl Dunham, of the Routt County Regional Building Department, said he received an application for the second bathroom July 28. Savalox said she received necessary materials for the bathroom addition Aug. 11. Sweet Pea's permit was approved Aug. 20 and issued Aug. 26.
The Building Department conducted its final inspection of the second bathroom Sept. 7.
Hieb told the Steamboat Pilot & Today in July that he likely would wait to install the second bathroom after the busy summer season, choosing in the meantime to instead pay the fines for non-compliance.
But Savalox and county environmental health specialist Jason Striker reported numerous other state health code violations during inspections at Sweet Pea this summer.
The violations involve food stored in the walk-in cooler and Sweet Pea's basement walk-in freezer, which also was installed without a permit and walled with noncompliant, absorbent materials including plywood and foam core.
Savalox said she discovered the cooler and freezer in an inspection Sept. 2 after an anonymous complaint.
"This aspect of the retail food operation was not disclosed at previous inspections, was not included in the original establishment's plan review packet and had several significant design deficiencies that are not in compliance with the Colorado Retail Food Establishment Rules and Regulations," Savalox wrote in a Sept. 3 letter to Hieb and Zambrana. "In order to address these issues, you as the licensee of Cafe Sweet Pea are required to submit plans for the walk-in refrigeration units. You are also ordered to immediately remove all food items from the beneath the unshielded sewer line(s) and must also remove all food products including produce from the floor and place these items in properly designed and constructed storage areas."
The Colorado regulations Savalox referred to in the letter state that food cannot be stored "under sewer lines that are not shielded to intercept potential drips."
Zopf has directed Routt County's environmental health department for 31 years. He told commissioners Tuesday that "we have never before recommended that a retail food license be suspended or revoked until” Tuesday.
Savalox has worked for Zopf for 10 years. She had a similar environmental health job in Eagle County for five years before that. She and Striker each conduct more than 200 restaurant inspections a year. Zopf said every food establishment in Routt County is inspected twice a year.
"I've never seen anybody else store food under a sewer line," Savalox said about Sweet Pea's basement. "In 15 years, I've never seen that."
Hieb told commissioners Tuesday that the photos taken by Striker are not representative of the normal condition of the walk-in cooler and freezer. Plumbers were in the basement Sept. 2, Hieb said, working on plumbing to install the needed second bathroom.
Hieb said Wednesday that he was setting up a meeting next week with Dunham, Zopf, Savalox and his architect to talk about plans and requirements for Sweet Pea to achieve compliance, with the goal of opening again Nov. 15.
"We have a meeting with Carl (Dunham), and we will do whatever it takes to get up to compliance to his satisfaction," Hieb said. "We don't want to go forward until we need to know exactly what to do, on all parties."
Hieb and Zambrana, from the start of questions this summer, have said they fully intend to comply with health and building regulations.
Hieb also repeatedly has said that compliance has been a constant learning process through positive interaction with county officials. Contractors for work sometimes told him permit and regulation information that later proved incorrect, Hieb said.
"Our walk-in, we thought, was OK for a grocery store. It's storing uncut, unprocessed produce and retail things such as packaged sausage," Hieb said about the basement storage. "We were under the assumption that these things were fine to do. … The kitchen has its own, separate walk-in."
He said "there's nothing wrong" and no leaks with pipes in the basement walk-in.
Rex Brice is vice president of the Steamboat Springs chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association. He owns four local restaurants: Rex's American Grill & Bar, Mazzola's Majestic Italian Diner, Big House Burgers & Bottle Cap Bar, and Lil' House Country Biscuits & Coffee.
Mazzola's has undergone significant interior renovations in the past year and Lil' House opened in February. Brice said when planning Lil' House, he had hoped that its customers could use the bathrooms in Big House. The two restaurants adjoin each other on Steamboat's west side. Lil' House is a much smaller, breakfast-oriented spot.
But Brice said in working with the county, he realized Lil' House had to have its own bathroom — even if it meant limiting its seating.
Food establishments are required to have more than one bathroom, at least one for each sex, if seating exceeds 15. Sweet Pea this summer had more than 10 multiseat tables on its deck, with seating for about 60. Brice said although Lil' House is small, he could have fit more than 15 seats in there but has not done so.
"We've never exceeded (15) because that's the law; that's the regulation," Brice said.
He said county officials have provided information up front about regulations for all of his restaurant projects.
"I feel bad for Sweet Pea, but I've always been given the information I've needed to make those decisions and I've always been held accountable for the regulations," Brice said. "I guess if you're going to hold one person accountable, you've got to hold everybody accountable."
Brice said he supports all restaurants in Steamboat, including Sweet Pea, and noted the struggles that come with a down economy. But he also acknowledged the tough job held by county health specialists.
"They've got an unpopular job and to do it sometimes they've got to make unpopular decisions," he said.
Jamie McQuade, owner of Winona's Restaurant & Bakery, was forced to close July 21 after subflooring collapsed in the kitchen. The restaurant re-opened Sept. 8 after a repair job done with guidance from the building and environmental health departments.
"I have nothing but positive things to say about the health department and the county in general," McQuade said. "They were very positive with us."
In explaining her support for the Sweet Pea license revocation, Mitsch Bush said the potential impacts of public health risks can be disastrous.
She recalled a local incident of salmonella in 2002 at the former Seasons at the Pond restaurant.
The outbreak occurred Dec. 16, 2002, likely from fruit salad. Fifty-one cases of salmonella were reported in the weeks that followed. Those contaminated ranged from 4 to 72 years old, and 96 percent were Routt County residents.
The county environmental health department worked with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a regional epidemiologist to curtail the outbreak.
The work those agencies did cost taxpayers $39,245.
Mitsch Bush said such instances could create "even a perception" of unsanitary conditions or relaxed enforcement that, when portrayed in regional media, could affect the tourism industry that's vital for local businesses.
She and commissioners Doug Monger and Nancy Stahoviak stressed that the most vital concern, though, is the health and safety of county residents.
"The residents that live here need to know that we're taking care," Monger said.
There have been no reported cases of illness related to Sweet Pea, before, during or after the compliance process.
Ace location open
Zopf said other health code violations found at Sweet Pea this summer, such as food stored at temperatures warmer than health codes allow, are "not unusual" in inspections at other local restaurants.
"What we as a department strive for is to see the correction of these violations immediately — meaning before the inspector leaves or as soon as possible," he said. "We don't want to see a pattern."
Savalox also acknowledged that there are often "problems in other kitchens."
"If people are going to say, 'You should see X restaurant or Y or Z,' we do," Savalox said. "We're in these restaurants twice a year."
They both said Sweet Pea's lengthy noncompliance with seating and the other violations, chiefly the walk-in refrigeration in the basement, set the business apart from other inspection and compliance processes.
Sweet Pea staff removed food items and other inventory from the location at 729 Yampa St. early Wednesday morning.
Hieb said Sweet Pea had about 15 people on staff at the time of the revocation.
He said the community showed "unbelievable" support for Sweet Pea on Tuesday night when the market had a sale on inventory up to its closure at midnight Wednesday.
"It just goes to show how much the community supports us," he said.
He said sales at Sweet Pea's Ace at the Curve location also have been very strong. That location has allowed him to maintain some employees, he said, and to keep working with the six family farms in the Palisade area that sell Sweet Pea their produce.
"We're going to try to stay open down at the Ace market," Hieb said. "The community has been so supportive. … We think we're going to continue to stay open there until the weather allows us.
"Thank God for our community," Hieb continued. "We're going to do everything in our power to open up in two months."