Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Restaurant From Hell

Yesterday's post about imported food from China recalled for me a story from a Yahoo message board four years ago. This is a first person account of a former fellow-employee and friend who was contracted to clean up a location for the company. After reading his description I hope the agent got it a very favorable price, because the investment getting it ready was pretty steep.

This description was divided into four separate posts because of limitations on the message board. With minor editing and spell-checking, here is his story...[Link Link Link Link]

I have many times in the past been commissioned to do jobs that are less than desirable. Closing a restaurant down is generally a nasty job. Since working for [the company] as a former employee and more recently a sub-contractor, I have been involved in closing many stores. During that time I ran across some pretty nasty situations. But never have I encountered the likes of what I am about to describe to you.

This restaurant was not a [company store]. It was a Chinese Buffet that the tenants were evicted from. Since they were operational up until the eviction, they had a full stock of food supplies in the storeroom and refrigerators. I was originally commissioned to simply go in and secure the gas and other utilities so that there was no danger or chance of someone getting hurt, and to put away any open or left out food. Then I was to contact some charity organization and donate the food. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong!

One of the first things that was evident, was that a lot of the food would have to be thrown away. They had many open #10 cans that were partially used,(they were working directly out of the cans), and a lot of bulk items stored in open containers that were considered contaminated (reasons for contamination to be explained later). Since I realized that there would be a large amount of food to be thrown away, I proceeded outside to the dumpster area to survey the capacity available in the dumpster for the waste. This is where it gets interesting.

I was hit by an odor of purification as I approached the dumpster area. It was the kind of stench that permeates the soft tissues of the nasal passages that can not be purged for days. The taste of bile reaching my taste buds as I gagged at the horrible odor. The dumpster was enclosed in a walled off area with a wooden gate that closed in front. I noticed garbage piled up way beyond the 7 foot height of the gate. I opened the gates to discover garbage had been piled, (since the compactor was full), all around in front, sides, rear and even over the top of the compactor. The restaurant had evidently not been paying their garbage bill. The stench was unbearable and as I inspected further, I found seething pools of live maggots 6" deep. A swarm/storm of iridescent green bodied black flies the size of your thumb arose from the pile as my movements disturbed their tranquility. They were flying in a circular cacophony that resembled a summers afternoon cumulus rain cloud. Rats the size of small dogs, seemingly hundreds of them, were disturbed as well and scurried to an fro trying to seek a better hiding place. A couple of them actually ran directly at me giving me a start. There was another walled off garbage area that housed a cardboard recycling bin adjacent to the one I was inspecting. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to take a look. It too, was completely filled with rotting garbage that had been carelessly thrown there. As before, all over the top, sides, behind and both sides. The garbage was mostly food waste that was originally deposited in black poly bags. The sun had not been merciful to the plastic, and the birds swooped down and had pecked through the bags seeking food. Thus permitting easy access to the flies. Some of the bags were actually undulating from the activity of the maggots from within.

I had to get away from the dumpster area, so I returned to the kitchen to continue my inspection. The conditions in there were far worse than anything I ever encountered in my 20 years experience in restraints. Everywhere I looked I encountered rot, filth and slime, and did I mention the roaches? Millions of roaches would be a conservative estimate. Everything I touched or moved resulted in the scurried activity of hundreds of roaches in various stages of development. Sanitation was evidently not an issue with these folks. I went to the restrooms in the kitchen and discovered the light bulbs had burned out. I needed to urinate, so I propped open the door to be able to see to get to the urinal. At the urinal, I was overcome by the strongest odor of urine and a some kind of new stench. As I flushed and started to back away, my feet had been solidly stuck to the floor. I pried myself away and went to find some light bulbs. I returned and installed the bulbs and the light revealed a well defined path of 1/2" thick black grease from the door to the urinal and from the door to the crapper. The path did not continue to the hand sink and there was no hand soap or paper towels there anyway. The crapper was spattered with diarrhea and there was no toilet paper either! No wonder the spread of SARS begins in China.

I called the Daily Bread Food Bank charity about getting the food as a donation. The nice people there weren't too interested and informed me that they may pick it up next week. I did not have time to wait, so I dialed a local Homeless People Shelter and asked if they would like to get the food. They were right on it immediately. I also inquired if they had any people who could work at clean up and they said they did provide a labor service at an hourly rate. I scheduled 4 men from there to arrive the next morning to assist me in cleaning out the place. I then arranged for a 20 yard roll off dumpster to be delivered the next morning. I went home, and without taking dinner, slept fitfully, constantly dreaming and waking throughout the night. Dreams of filth and slime could not be purged from my mind as could not the smell of putrification lingering in my nasal passage.

A van from Helping People Across America Homeless Shelter arrived to deliver the 4 men and begin collecting the donated food. I introduced myself to the men and asked them to first assist in loading the food and after all the food was gone, to assist me in cleaning out the place. The food was carefully studied and picked over before loading into the van. The people from the shelter did not want to take any food that might be contaminated and possibly get people sick. They did not want the bulk items stored in uncovered bins as there was evidence of rat droppings in the mix. Obviously so, as we witnessed rats scurrying about the entire time we were in the building. The point of entry for the rats was well defined in a rotted door that exited the rear of the building had a 4" gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. The shelter people also declined , eel, octopus tentacles,(suckers and all), shrimp and fish just lying on the floor in the walk-in coolers. They also refused to take a whole frozen octopus that was simply sitting on a wire shelf in the freezer, it wasn't covered, in a pot, wrapped or anything! Formidable!

With the food now out of the building, the task of clean up began. I purchased a wheelbarrow and shovels thinking that would be the only way we would be able to get the rotted garbage bags out from behind the dumpster. I had tried to pick up a bag first and it just resulted in the bag tearing open and the contents spilling out. I also purchased several pairs of heavy rubber gloves and filter masks for myself and the men. I began the task with a shovel and realized right away that this was not going to be the solution. There was an opening between the compactor and wall that was only 16" wide. We could not fit the wheelbarrow through. To carry, shovel by shovel would take days, and you could only stand to be in there for a moment at a time. So we moved operations to the other dumpster area where we had more room. After 4 hours or so, we had the 20 yard roll off dumpster completely full, and only about half of the garbage was in it.The task seemed insurmountable. We abandoned the project for that day and went back inside to start cleaning the grease from the floors. I called and arranged a pick up on the roll off for the next morning and then called to arrange getting the grease traps pumped out. That night when I arrived home, I stripped down outside the door and threw the clothes away.

The next morning as prearranged, the men arrived for work. A couple of the guys said that they were discussing the task the night before and had come up with an idea to move the rotted garbage out. They suggested a tarp would drag through the opening. We could lay the tarp out, roll a bag over onto it, and drag it through. Once outside the dumpster wall, we could pick up the tarp with 2 or three men and dump it into the wheelbarrow, and roll it up into the 20 yard roll off. The plan worked brilliantly! With 5 of us there, we took turns going in after a bag. The work was slow and arduous. Working in ankle deep slosh in the sweltering sun amidst the stench was undoubtedly the worst thing I ever attempted to do. The spirit of the men and myself was dampened by the situation, but we waded back in time and time again and finished the job. Once again, the 20 yard roll off was full. I purchased 20 gallons of bleach and poured it all over everything afterwards to kill the stench.

The pump truck arrived to pump the grease traps. I showed the driver the location and returned inside to continue cleaning. The driver came in a few minutes later and asked that I accompany him outside to see what he had discovered in the grease traps. He told me from his experience in the business, that he was certain the traps had not been serviced for a long time. He had a shovel with a very long handle and showed me where the solid congealed grease was so thick, that he could not dig to the bottom. He worked with the shovel and sure enough, the grease was solid as far as you could see. I asked him if the job could be accomplished. He told me yes, but it would be a matter of breaking it up manually and sucking it out chunk by chunk. I left him to his work and 5 hours later he returned to fetch me again to inspect the traps. He had successfully cleaned out all the grease.

The men and I continued cleaning inside the building. We washed out all the walk-ins and sanitized them. We propped open the doors to keep them fresh. The filth and grease on and around all the cooking equipment was thick and baked on, as it was on the floors. The job really made an impression on me and as I worked, I began to question why this could have happened. How could the system have failed to detect and stop something like this? In my experience with many other restaurants, the health inspectors and even the fire marshall's are overbearing to the management. I have seen health officials threaten to close restaurants that weren't even dirty, just for minor infractions. I would love to know how this particular establishment avoided closure. And why didn't the waste company report to someone that they had stopped picking up the garbage? As of this writing, we have spent 3 full days at the location and worked right through the weekend. We still have one more day inside to finish cleaning the kitchen.

I will never be able to say enough about courage and willingness of these men from the homeless shelter. Their spirit, enthusiasm and perseverance is astonishing. They are, in retrospect, truly heroes in my mind. The task they accomplished was phenomenal. I am sure there would have been many others that would not have accepted the task as did they. Ralph, Al, John and Alfred, I salute you!

If anyone out there desires to help the homeless people, I urge you to research the program parameters at whatever facility they are staying at. It seems that there are now people using the guise of "helping the homeless" that are actually running very profitable businesses. This leaves very little opportunity for the homeless to work their way out and become independent.

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Is this what can be called muckraking, the descriptive term coined by Theodore Roosevelt?

One reason the food business is so competitive is that when people immigrate they not only don't speak the language but often have few marketable skills. One thing they know is how to cook their own food. Ethnic foods in America reflect the multitudes from many lands. And who are their patrons? Everyday Americans, of course, are curious about all kinds of food, but an important part of the customer base is others from the same ethnic group they represent.

Tastes and customs we find disagreeable or downright dangerous are more widespread than we like to admit. Anyone who thinks a local sanitarian can single-handedly succeed in making the food supply safe and wholesome is not being realistic. The burden of safety and sanitation lies squarely on the shoulders of the industry. Inspectors who drop in from time to time can help, but everyday practices that make a difference are up to local management.

1 comment:

Marty said...

I know Piccadilly was, in the end, a difficult company but I had no idea that I spent 20 years working in restraints! What was that about Hoots? I think the spell check misinterpreted my wrongly spelled "restaurants" word, eh?

No problem with the posting of that old story. You can lift and use anything I ever wrote and posted on the old Yahoo. Those were the good old days, eh? Spell check would play heck trying to correct some of 'Ol Reds posts, no?

I enjoy your blog. Do you ever have any spare time to spend wth your wife? Just curious. You are one very busy blogger I'd say. Keep it up.