Do your favorite La Verne restaurants make the grade?

Owners of late night dining in La Verne, (left to right) Kenny Schonfeld of Warehouse Pizza, and Naomi and Tony Spencer of T. Phillips, serve their hungry clientele after hours. / photography by Michael D. Martinez

Owners of late night dining in La Verne, (left to right) Kenny Schonfeld of Warehouse Pizza, and Naomi and Tony Spencer of T. Phillips, serve their hungry clientele after hours. / photography by Michael D. Martinez

by Julissa Cardenas
photography by Michael D. Martinez

Approaching one of her favorite La Verne restaurants, Kelli Castillo, a student at Mount San Antonio College, notices a slight change. It is subtle, but her eye catches it. The restaurant’s usual high grade has slipped from an “A” to a “B.” Kelli is undeterred, but she is perhaps more forgiving than others. For some, a restaurant’s grade makes all the difference on where they dine. And for La Verne’s restaurant owners, it is the realization of their worst fear to slip to a “B,” never mind a “C” rating. For even a “B” plastered on the front window is as unwelcome as graffiti. Yet, as more and more questionable grades—”B’s,” even occasional “C’s” appeared on some local restaurants last fall and spring, diners may have wondered about the trend.

The Bowl House, the place where many members of the La Verne community grab a delicious bowl of teriyaki chicken, briefly held a “C” grade, along with the Phoenix Garden Chinese Restaurant and T. Phillips Alehouse & Grill. The Phoenix Garden had a “C” in the beginning of January 2010, while T. Phillips had a “C” in May of 2009. Both quickly corrected the ratings to “A’s.”

The Bowl House, too, managed to bounce back, improving its score to a “B.” While an improvement, the “B” was given due to dirty food contacts and improper food temperature. These two violations impeded Bowl House’s chances to gain an “A.” As the Bowl House owners learned, just two violations in section one, which deals with serious issues such as rodents, water temperature and food contamination, can drop a restaurant’s grade dramatically.

Angel’s Place, also located on La Verne’s “D” Street, in March 2010 carried a “B” rating for “Clean/ Sanitizing Food Contact Surfaces.”

For Kenny Schonfeld, the owner of Warehouse Pizza, located on “D” Street, getting a “B” was a real shock. “I had a “B” for the first time in 24 years,” recalls Schonfeld. “I’ve always had an ‘A.’” According to the inspection form, Warehouse Pizza had two violations. The salad bowl was not covered, and the food temperature was not up to par. While less than excellent ratings were the situation for many La Verne restaurants, Schonfeld was determined to change his “B” as quickly as possible. “I paid $274 for the re-inspection, and within 10 days [the inspector] returned. I have to say I was surprised because we had been doing the same thing for 24 years, but I am happy to say my final grade returned to an ‘A,’” Schonfeld says.

A restaurant that has managed to keep an “A” rating is the Taco Factory, located on Foothill Boulevard. Christina De Anda, cashier of Taco Factory, is happy about her rating. “As long as I can remember, it has always been an “A.” At times, it has been borderline, but we always manage to get the best rating,” De Anda says. “It’s always done at random; we never know when the inspector is about to show, but we are always prepared,” De Anda explains.

The element of surprise is something that many restaurant owners deal with; for some, it can be difficult managing customers and the health inspector at the same time. “The inspector can be inspecting for quite some time. There are some who stay and thoroughly inspect everything, but my staff and I have to continue on with the business; there are hungry customers,” Schonfeld says.

The La Verne inspector explains his job

Angel Ramirez is the health inspector who inspected Warehouse Pizza and other restaurants in La Verne. “We are trained to have a bird’s eye view, to take everything in all at once; that is my job. The first thing I do is to take a good view of the place. I look at the windows, the walls, the staff, pretty much everything and my surroundings,” says Ramirez.

Ramirez never leaves his office without his tool kit, its main implement being a thermocouple, which is a fancy evolved thermometer that allows inspectors to receive fast readings of temperature. In his kit, he also carries his evaluation forms and the big letters that one sees in a restaurant’s window. He has been doing this job for eight years.

The element of surprise that the owners get during a visit from Ramirez is not as enjoyable for him as one would think. “The surprise is part of my job; it is the way it is. I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t hate it. If we didn’t do it that way, they would prepare ahead of time, and we would not see how it really is. It’s like a candid view, a candid camera.”

With boastful pride, the La Verne management of T. Phillips Alehouse & Grill on “D” Street keeps its coveted Health Department “A” rating in a locked display cabinet. / photo by Michael D. Martinez

With boastful pride, the La Verne management of T. Phillips Alehouse & Grill on “D” Street keeps its coveted Health Department “A” rating in a locked display cabinet. / photo by Michael D. Martinez

During the inspection, Ramirez prefers to separate business and friendship. “I am a health inspector, and during the inspection that is my job. After the inspection is when we can socialize.” The one thing that Ramirez understands and emphasizes during his visits is the education that an owner needs in order to understand why her rating was the way it was.

“The best tool for this kind of relationship is education; otherwise, they don’t understand the details. If you educate them, they don’t question because they know what it takes to get a “B” or an “A,” although everyone wants an “A” even though a “B” is not bad,” says Ramirez. “When an owner questions my final rating, I encourage them to have a meeting with the Health Department in order to fully understand what it takes to get an “A.” I do not do it on purpose; I simply am doing my job.”

Asked whether he eats at a “B” establishment, Ramirez’s answer was surprising. “You look at a ‘B’ rating, and that is normal; it’s not too bad. I eat at restaurants with a ‘B’; there are just a couple of minor violations. Now a ‘C’; those are major food violations, and there is no way I will eat anywhere with a ‘C.’” In order to get a “C,” a restaurant has violations in both section one and possibly section two on the inspection form. Section two has in-depth violations that deal with improper food handling, improperly cleaned utensils and surfaces, and hazardous chemical storage. For example, if a restaurant has uncooked food stored above cooked food, that is a dangerous violation because of food contamination risks. There is a grade below a “C,” which results in restaurant closure. When a restaurant receives a closure rating, it receives 48-hour notice by the Health Department. “I always make it my mission to complete the inspection before making any brash decisions. I continue to inspect, even if I see questioning signs; everyone deserves a thorough inspection,” Ramirez says.

A retired health inspector remembers

Kaleigh Downing is a retired health inspector who recalls many horrors in the food industry. “I’ve inspected restaurants, bars, strip joints, markets; you name it.” Aside from viewing cockroach spray in many restaurants’ pantries, there were other memorable items that are hard to forget. “I remember this place in China Town where the cutting boards had animal droppings. There are places where you instantly walk in, and you know they have to be shut down immediately,” Downing recalls.

As the food industry keeps evolving, many rules that are enforced now did not exist while Downing was inspecting. “I remember that we did not have a grading system with ‘A’s,’ ‘B’s,’ and ‘C’s,’ and restaurant owners did not pay for re-inspection,” says Downing. Depending on the violations, inspectors would return within a day, weeks or months. Owners would simply have to wait. As more and more restaurant owners complain about the re-inspection fees, Downing has a few words to say about their complaints. “The restaurants shouldn’t be complaining about paying for a re-check fee because they shouldn’t have gotten a ‘B’ or less in the first place.”

Public opinion on the ratings

With the grading system, many restaurants may suffer business loss with a “B” or “C” rating due to public misconceptions. “I never eat at a “C” restaurant,” says Michelle Kazman, a University of La Verne education major. “There are many things that come to mind when I think of those ratings, and, personally, those restaurants are not for me. A sushi place definitely must have an ‘A’ because I am eating raw food. When it comes to a ‘B’ rating, I may still eat there, depending on the food and the place, but it is always best to have an ‘A,’” says Kazman.

For Kelli Castillo, ratings are not so important. “I rarely check for ratings, or I rarely see them on the windows. If I stumble across a ‘C’ rating, that’s when I pay attention and choose to not eat there. Other than that, it’s not a big deal.”

While some prefer “A’s” and do not pay much attention to the ratings, others are very particular about the places where they eat. “I only eat at places with an ‘A’ rating, and I specifically look for the ‘A’ if it is hidden,” Brenda Pena, a student at Pasadena City College says. “It’s a matter of health for the customer, but it is also a matter of pride as a business owner to have a good rating,” says Pena. “With a good rating, which is an “A,” the owner is happy, and the customers keep coming back.”

Also see the companion story, “How restaurants earn their letters.”