NORTH ADAMS — A Main Street pizza restaurant that was shut down last month due to 24 health code violations had not been inspected in more than a year, according to city records.
And that lapse has revealed a backlog in restaurant inspections by the Health Department that city officials had not been aware of.
"No excuses for what happened," Mayor Richard Alcombright told The Eagle on Monday. "We probably dropped the ball on that stuff, but I think we have a good plan moving forward."
Supreme Pizza was closed by the city's Board of Health on April 20 after a routine inspection found chicken being stored at 59 degrees Fahrenheit, pizza sauce in a walk-in cooler being stored in a trash can with a dirty plastic pitcher in it, and coolers unable to maintain temperature, according to records obtained by The Eagle.
"I'm really surprised no one got sick," said James O'Brien, the city's director of health.
All 37 city restaurants are required to be inspected twice a year under city regulations. According to the Health Department, Supreme Pizza had not been inspected since August 2014.
The backlog in restaurant inspections, at its worst, was about a year, O'Brien said, noting the department is nearly caught up thanks to the return of a part-time inspector in April who performs inspections for a $25 stipend.
After an inquiry by The Eagle into the city's inspection services, Alcombright met with city staff to implement new checks and balances moving forward, including a spreadsheet of the city's restaurants shared amongst city staff to ensure restaurants don't go uninspected.
With the return of Mark Vadnais, the city's longtime sealer of weights and measures, as the part-time inspector, Alcombright said 23 of the 37 restaurants are up-to-date and the remaining sites should be covered sometime in May.
At Alcombright's direction, the city consolidated its inspection services in 2013, which included the elimination of an assistant health inspector.
Still, the mayor is skeptical that insufficient resources are to blame for the backlog of inspections. He believes with better communication, the city can better utilize the part-time inspector, who resides in Florida for four months in the year, to avoid falling behind on inspections.
"We will work with his schedule to be certain we are back on a twice-a-year cycle. What doesn't get handled by [Vadnais] can certainly be picked up by [O'Brien]," Alcombright said. "It's a discussion we should have head earlier than this. We're on top of it now and we'll have everybody on schedule in May."
The city is signed on to the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission's Public Health Alliance, which can provide member communities with inspection services. But O'Brien and Building Inspector William Meranti decided early in the year to wait until April, when the part-time inspector returned, to catch up on inspections.
In doing so, the city avoided the Public Health Alliance's $50 per hour fee. But Alcombright said "It's not about the money, it's just about the fact that Mark was coming back."
He said he was unaware of the backlog.
"If they're falling behind because of what was a reduction in staff over time, then I should have known," Alcombright said.
After meeting with city staff, Alcombright said he was assured that inspectors had never missed an inspection of a school cafeteria.
Supreme Pizza came under the ownership of Saravia Family Restaurant Inc. in December 2014. Though it had not been seen by health inspectors, the restaurant was last inspected and approved by the building department in January of this year.
In previous inspections, Supreme Pizza had never received such poor marks, according to O'Brien.
Among the other food safety infractions were cleaning chemicals stored above open bags of flour, a reach in cooler with meat stored above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, foreign material inside multiple open bags of rice and grains, and chicken in a walk-in cooler being stored above ready-to-eat foods.
It could be several weeks before the restaurant, which must train four members of the staff to be Serv-Safe certified, can reopen. Not one present member of the staff was Serv-Safe certified at the time of the inspection. Serv-Safe is a food safety training program.
The city also has required that Supreme hire a food safety consultant to craft a food safety plan for the restaurant. Staff will be required to log the temperature of freezers and coolers every two hours, and the restaurant must undergo another inspection before it is allowed to reopen.
Rolando Saravia, who is listed in corporate filings as the president of Saravia Family Restaurant, could not be reached for comment.
Contact Adam Shanks 413-496-6376.