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From Mad Mex to Chipotle, Penn students have seen a series of restaurants on campus closed or suspended in recent years for violating health regulations.  

But Director of Environmental Health Services for the City of Philadelphia Palak Raval-Nelson said the number of closures around Penn is not unusual. 

“We don’t get any more or less complaints from the Penn area — the West Philadelphia area — than we do from any other pockets of the city,” she said.

Raval-Nelson said sanitarians from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health check most food establishments once per year, without prior announcement. There are about 12,621 food establishments in Philadelphia, so only those that cater to higher-risk populations — such as hospitals, nursing homes, and daycares — receive more frequent checkups, she said. 

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health website explains that inspectors grade establishments according to more than 56 categories. Some come from definitions of improper practice set by federal agencies, such as the absence of an individual certified in food safety. Inspectors also check the establishment's “retail practices,” which include food temperature, cleanliness of the space, and the “category 36” violation of insects and other pests.

Credit: Anna Lisa Lowenstein and Ben Zhao

Various eateries near campus have been cited for health violations

DOH representatives inspect any establishment that serves food, Raval-Nelson said, even if it’s just gum or juice. This means that even food trucks are subject to investigation. For instance, DOH determined that Magic Carpet was in compliance at its last inspection, as was Lyn’s. Chez Yasmin and Yue Kee had a few infractions but were all corrected on site.  

In January this year, Penn students craving Chipotle were disappointed when they arrived at 3925 Walnut St. to find a yellow and white striped sign with the red, all-caps words “CEASE OPERATIONS.” 

This came after DOH sanitarians presented seven violations for the eatery, including the lack of a food safety provisions and debris on a food preparation area. The DOH ordered the restaurant to close for a minimum of 48 hours to address the violations, and two days later, Chipotle was back in business after a successful reinspection.  

Chipotle has remained open since January, though the restaurant's recent inspection in September found that it was “not in satisfactory compliance” with all health regulations. Inspectors found flies, mouse droppings and dead mice in the attic of the restaurant, suggesting that there were rodents in the restaurant. 

Some students who frequent Chipotle, such as College senior David Kinnaird, said they remain unfazed by these violations.

"I still eat at Chipotle because I never got sick," Kinnaird said. "I just don't feel like it will be me."

Engineering sophomore Eduardo Ortuño said he tries not to go to Chipotle too frequently, but does not think the health violations are enough for him to avoid the eatery entirely. He explained that the convenience and moderate cost of Chipotle meals sometimes outweigh the potential health risks.

"I think it's very interesting because people are very aware of these health violations but they still don't really care," Ortuño said. "They still go to these places just because they love them."

Other West Philadelphia restaurants have also gotten into trouble with the DOH — inspectors pegged Bobby’s Burger Palace with four violations in November 2016, which required them to go to the Court of Common Pleas, but not cease operations. More recently in January, a second inspection of Bobby's found seven new violations, three of which were corrected during the procedure.

Before closing for good due to an inability to finance a planned refurbishing, Mad Mex faced 15 health violations in May 2017, and then three more — including evidence of mouse activity — during its June reinspection.   

Establishments on campus have also shut down after health inspections. 

In November last year, the cafe in the Penn Bookstore shut down voluntarily after a health inspection. Director of Communications and External Relations at the Division of Business Services Barbara Lea-Kruger said the cafe closed to address problems with the hot water tank that coincided with the DOH inspection and reopened two days later when the tank was fixed.

What actually happens when establishments violate health regulations?

More serious violations that carry higher potential of spreading illness — such as a lack of hot or cold water, no food safety certified individual on the premises, or a mouse infestation — may lead to eateries being shut down, Raval-Nelson said. 

Penn serves as the landlord for various eateries on and around campus, and there are rules in the contracts between food establishments and their landlords to ensure that they comply with government regulations, Penn’s Executive Director of Real Estate Ed Datz said. 

If restaurants don’t address the DOH’s instructions in given periods of time or accrue too many violations, landlords can seek the disciplinary action laid out in their contracts, which can include eviction, Datz added.

When shut down, restaurants can receive anywhere from 24 hours to a few weeks to fix the violations, Raval-Nelson said, after which the DOH will conduct a reinspection to ensure that the issues have been addressed and no new ones have arisen. Otherwise, the establishment will incur fees and/or be submitted to the Court of Common Pleas.

But some restaurants, like the cafe at the Penn Bookstore, may also voluntarily stop operations while they correct health violations that were flagged. In addition, when a food establishment first receives a notice of a violation, due process grants them a chance to correct it, Raval-Nelson said.

“Everyone has the opportunity, in this country, to correct what what they need to correct,” she said. “We want to educate folks because the goal is to get them to do what they need to do, safely, when we’re not there. We are very much about education and then regulation." 

Datz also said tenants are generally receptive to fixing violations once they are notified of them. 

“You trust them because they’re the ones that go ahead and are harmed. Their reputation is harmed if they’re closed,” Datz said. “As a landlord, we want to make sure our tenants remain in compliance and remain open." 

Raval-Nelson added that her staff is limited, so students should educate themselves about food safety practices. 

“We investigate every single complaint. We get about 950 a year, and we investigate every single complaint,” she said. “All of us have to eat.”