An Insider’s Perspective on Health Inspections

By Jared Leonard (rubbbqco)

Recently, a popular restaurant was closed by the Chicago Department of Public Health, and it got a lot of chatter on the interweb. As I read the comments, I thought I could clear up some misunderstandings about restaurant inspections, specifically failing one of them (and what it takes to get a green sign on the door). 

Failures and closures have become popular fodder for internet news outlets. Details of every inspection are shared publicly by the City of Chicago, and closures are a favorite of DNAInfo and Eater.

I am not going to take sides on this; that’s not the point of what I’m writing. I, as a restaurant owner, would simply like to fill in the blanks – and correct some misinformation that has been written and/or assumed. 

All food service establishments in the City of Chicago, at which food is prepared on site, are supposed to be inspected by the Department of Health every six months. Realistically, it happens about once a year and up to two years apart – unless you receive complaints, which are responded to very quickly. Why don’t they inspect more often? CDPH just doesn’t have the staff to keep up with quarterly or semi-annual recommended inspections for the thousands of restaurants in our abundantly-fed city. 

The health inspectors I’ve met are reasonable, easy to work with folks. Regular inspectors, regional managers, supervisors – all of them I have encountered have been very pleasant. I also like police officers – but maybe I just know how to talk to people. 

Health inspectors generally spend about two hours in a small restaurant, and up to four in a larger space. The main things they look for: food temperatures (cold food below 40 degrees, hot food above 140); evidence of rodents; general cleanliness; city of Chicago Sanitation Manager onsite; garbage/dumpster area cleanliness; ice machine cleanliness.

There are a couple different types of fines/citations:

Warning/guidance recommendations: usually no fine attached, but any issues must be corrected by the next inspection. You’ll get a couple of these every time–just kind words of guidance on how to make things cleaner. 

Basic Violation (minor): Examples include: food not labeled/dated; items (non-food) found stored on the floor or in closets, not off the ground; dirty grease filter/grease traps; dirty dumpster area. This citation is usually accompanied by a fine of$250 to $1000. The biggest pain of this kind of citation is that you MUST go to court, and you can no longer represent yourself – you MUST hire a licensed attorney. Good news is, at court, they usually knock the fine down to the minimum (which now only offsets the cost of the attorney).

Critical Violation: Common Example: food in the “Danger Zone” (temperature of 40-140). This is taken very seriously. Even if you claim the food was just cooking, cooling, or whatever the reason – without a detailed written log to prove your story they will throw out the food and impose a hefty fine. Another critical violation that is common is having no Certified Food Safety Manager onsite. This is an automatic Critical. Some other examples are: rodent droppings (upstairs, downstairs, or on the stairs); live flies/roaches; refrigeration not working properly; no hand wash sink (they can close you for this one); no dish wash sink/sink not working (also potential closure).

Failing and Closure:

Failing is quite common – it happens when an inspector finds more than a few things, including a critical violation, that aren’t or cannot be corrected while the inspector is onsite. Critical violations corrected while an inspector is onsite can be downgraded to minor violations. You’d be surprised how many restaurants “fail” health inspections – including Alinea and MANY MANY board favorites (I won’t name names, look it up if you’d like – it’s really not a big deal unless it’s repetitive). Failure is not always indicative of unsafe practice, and many times it’s simply due to oversight or even bad timing. No one’s perfect.


Closure happens automatically when a restaurant receives two or more critical violations that aren’t corrected before the inspector leaves. A common reason for closure is plumbing (which cannot be fixed quickly), combined with a few oversights and/or not having a sanitation manager present. Another problem is basements. Basements are meant to be kept to the same standards as above-ground floors, but many times are overlooked due to their out-of-sight existence. 

A single inspector cannot close a restaurant. When a field inspector decides he is going to issue closure, he calls a supervisor who comes to the site to confirm/affirm what the inspector has decided. 

Permanent closures:
I saw this recommendation several times last week, and many wondered “how many failures is too many?” Well, unless the failure was accompanied by a closure,there is no “x strikes and you’re out.” If you receive more than 1 CPHD closure in a 12-month period the city CAN revoke your license. Your case is assigned to a special committee, and they decide what to do with you. If you are making efforts and are apologetic, permanent closure rarely happens from failed health inspections. 

All in all, this city does a pretty good job at identifying what public health risks there may –be, and suggesting measures to correct such risks. They haven’t become “harder” over the years, and restaurants don’t fail more now than in the past. It seems like we hear about failures/closures more often these days, and it has become almost impossible to hide from a failure. Understandably, the more popular the restaurant is, the bigger the story of a failure/closure. Health inspection reports are only public (online) back to 2010, so any suggestion that a restaurant is failing more now than in the past is simply speculation.

Jared Leonard feels lucky to have turned his hobby & passion for BBQ into his career. Growing up in Chicago, Jared’s love for BBQ developed after spending some time with seasoned Southerners in his early 20’s. Jared brought his newfound BBQ passion back to Chicago with plans to turn it into his career. Jared opened Rub’s Backcountry Smokehouse in 2010. Rub’s has grown in the past 5 years, expanding from just a small takeout BBQ Joint to a restaurant, BBQ Pit Room for cooking classes, A BBQ Ranch in Beloit, WI and a new southern fried chicken joint opening in Lincoln Square summer 2015. “I love what I do – I love cooking, eating, entertaining; I feel fortunate that our customers and the City of Chicago continue to bless us with their support.”

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