Boston, MA: Health Code Violations Common, as Operators Learn How to Run Eateries Out of Boxes on Wheels

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF Geralda Figueroa, a Boston health inspector, told Kim Crocker and Robert MacClean how to avoid violations.

By Deborah Kotz  |  Boston Globe

DAVID L RYAN/GLOBE STAFF Geralda Figueroa, a Boston health inspector, told Kim Crocker and Robert MacClean how to avoid violations.
Geralda Figueroa, a Boston health inspector, told Kim Crocker and Robert MacClean how to avoid violations.

Food trucks have rapidly multiplied on Boston streets and plazas, with 75 gourmet-style restaurants on wheels now serving up everything from portobello mushroom paninis to Vietnamese rice bowls. With convenient and relatively cheap food, the trucks often have long lines at lunch.

But 41 percent of these trucks have been cited for food safety violations that put their customers at risk of food poisoning, according to a Globe review of all inspection records since the vast majority of the trucks arrived in the city two years ago.

On nine occasions in the two-year period, the inspections uncovered such severe infractions that the truck’s permit was suspended for up to a week until the problems could be corrected.

Roxy’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese, which was featured in 2011 on a Food Network reality show, had the permit for one of its trucks suspended twice, in April 2012 and this past January. Inspectors found french fries that were partially cooked in oil and stored at room temperature, and a busted refrigerator.

The Dining Car similarly had its permit yanked twice since last August, after it failed to provide water for employees to wash their hands, did not keep its chicken cold enough, and neglected to wash its produce before loading it on the truck.

The Taco Truck, Benny’s Crepe Cafe, a Clover truck, and Roxy’s were also cited in the past 13 months for providing no water for hand-washing, inspectors reported. And Chubby Chickpea Mobile, in addition to not having hot water during an April 2012 inspection, did not keep its cooked chicken and falafel warm enough. All resumed operations after fixing the violations.

The rate of permit suspensions was much higher for the food trucks than for the city’s 4,000-plus sit-down restaurants and fast-food chains, which had 87 suspensions during the same period.

After a salmonella outbreak recently sickened at least 27 people who ate from Clover’s food trucks and restaurants — all supplied by a single kitchen — some food safety specialists have questioned whether complying with health standards is tougher for food trucks than for traditional brick and mortar restaurants.

“Food trucks have to abide by the same standards as a restaurant to ensure good hygiene practices and adequate temperature control for food storage,” said Lisa Berger, a Boston food safety consultant. But she said frying, chopping, and grilling in a small confined space — typically 24 feet by 8 feet — with a refillable water tank can be tough.

The water supply must be continuously monitored and kept from running dry, and this might discourage workers from adequately washing produce, food-encrusted utensils, or their dirty hands.

“Sometimes they don’t bother to turn the water on before they start prepping for the day,” said Charles Cook, assistant commissioner of the city’s Inspectional Services Department, which issues permits and performs inspections of restaurants and food trucks. “I think it’s the person in charge of the truck needing to be properly trained.”

Still, he said he does not believe food trucks pose any greater food safety risks than restaurants.

The city conducts surprise checks on trucks at least once, but preferably twice, a year, which is the same as the practice for restaurants. Those with a history of serious violations will get inspected three times, Cook said. Trucks are also routinely inspected when they park at fairs or farmer’s markets.

Only 10 of the trucks have passed all of their inspections without any violations, and most of these sell cupcakes, cookies, and frozen treats that require no cooking on the truck.

During an inspection of Compliments Food Truck last Tuesday, health inspector Geralda Figueroa first turned on the faucets in the two sinks to test their pressure and water temperature and then stuck a hand thermometer into the raw meatballs in the sandwich cooling station.

Just as owner Kim Crocker was explaining to the inspector that the meatballs were a little warm from being shaped a few minutes before, the power suddenly went out.

“Whoa! What happened to the generator?” Figueroa asked.

Within two minutes, the lights came back. “It was a little nerve-racking. I’m not going to lie,” owner Kim Crocker said in a later interview.

The year-old food truck, parked in City Hall Plaza during the inspection, had no violations on its previous inspection last February, but it required a reinspection this time, after tuna fish in the cooling station measured 45 degrees.

“It needs to be kept at 41 degrees or below,” said Figueroa as she made a “fail” note in her report. She also cited the truck owners for not chilling a container of marinated mushrooms quickly enough and recommended that Crocker prepare the dish in her Brookline commissary, rather than on the truck, to ensure that it’s rapidly cooled in a device called a blast chiller.

Crocker said that she will follow that advice and will also keep her cooling station set at a lower temperature. “It’s always great to have inspectors to teach you things.”

That is one of the main missions of Inspectional Services, agreed Daniel Prendergast, the city’s principal health inspector. “We emphasize that salads made in bulk and cooked foods that need to be reheated should be made in the commissary,” he said. This is a large kitchen facility that food trucks must use to store, prepare, and chill menu ingredients and to sanitize their utensils and cookware at the end of each shift.

Food truck owners, who must employ at least one food protection manager certified via an exam, face a tricky challenge each morning to make sure the prepared foods they load from the commissary onto the truck are all at the appropriate “holding” temperatures and that they remain that way during the day.

A Clover truck parked at the Boston Common had its permit temporarily suspended in July 2012 after an inspector found that the truck had no running water. The inspector also found that items prepared earlier in the day were left out to cool instead of refrigerated and that various salads, sliced eggplant, and chickpeas were held at 55 degrees instead of 41 degrees or below. The truck reopened a week after the problems were fixed.

“Bacteria grows at certain temperatures,” Cook explained. “It doesn’t grow in temperatures above 140 degrees or in those below 41, which is why we recommend foods be stored at those temperatures” to lower the risk of food-borne illness.

It is unknown whether mistakes in food handling contributed to the recent salmonella outbreak; the source of the illness has not been identified.

Several Clover food trucks in Boston were reinspected by Inspectional Services last week and given the green light to reopen after all were shut in early July as a precaution after the salmonella outbreak.

A lack of water supply and improper food storage are likely the two biggest food safety challenges on food trucks, which often stem from broken equipment, said Berger, the food safety consultant.

James DiSabatino, owner of Roxy’s, cited malfunctioning generators as a major issue he’s had to deal with during the past three years. “If the power is off for more than five minutes, we shut down for the day,” he said.

An equipment problem also was a factor when an inspector found no running water on one of his trucks in January.

“It was 10 degrees outside on that day, and our water heater had cracked from the cold,” DiSabatino said. “We now know how to make a temporary hand wash, which the inspector taught us how to do.”

Frequent inspections of his trucks, he added, have improved his relationships with city health inspectors to the point where he feels comfortable calling them with questions.

Roy Costa, a Florida food safety consultant who previously worked in that state’s health department for two decades, said food trucks are very difficult to regulate compared to restaurants. “It’s more difficult to operate these units safely since they’re fraught with mechanical problems.”

A lack of access to bathrooms on the truck may also foster poor hygienic practices. “Where do they go? Inspectors don’t have control over that,” Costa said, as they do in restaurants.

But such concerns don’t seem to phase food truck patrons, judging by the size of the lunchtime crowds lining up to order from Compliments and two other food trucks parked at City Hall Plaza last Tuesday.

“They’re very convenient and their menus change all the time,” said Leslie Pearlson, one of 22 people lined up to order from Mei Mei Street Kitchen, which has been cited twice in the past year for not keeping its cooked foods stored at the proper temperatures.

Trucks touting their use of fresh, locally grown ingredients converted Andre Alguero into a regular patron. That, he said, and good conversation. “They seem like they’re working hard to please their customers, getting to know us.”