COLUMBIA, Mo. - The holiday shopping season is set to kick off in just a couple of days, and shoppers will likely stop for a meal at an area mall food court.
About a year ago, ABC 17 News first reported the Columbia-Boone County Health Department shut down two restaurants at the Columbia Mall after inspectors found numerous health code violations.
One of the restaurants, Famous Cajun Grill, was caught with cockroaches in its food.
At the time, the health department said the restaurants needed to make improvements.
Before you grab a bite to eat, ABC 17's Kristie Reeter examined inspection reports from the last year and explains how food courts in Columbia and Jefferson City are faring.
When it comes to restaurant cleanliness, critical health code violations are not something business owners want on a record nor diners want to experience. Critical violations are ones that can make a diner sick.
Last year, inspectors found 19 critical violations during one check at Stir Fry 88 and shut down the restaurant.
Famous Cajun Grill, located next door, also racked up enough violations to be shut down.
The latest inspection of Stir Fry 88, completed in October, found four critical violations. Three violations were found during Famous Cajun Grill's latest inspection in June.
"Those two facilities were pretty much gutted and rebuilt from the stud walls, so that gave an opportunity to do a lot of thorough cleaning, repairing some old plumbing issues that could have been contributing factors, as well as some other extermination factors,"said Kala Wekenborg of the Columbia-Boone County Health Department.
Wekenborg said it was a team effort to reopen the restaurant. The health department, mall management and the corporate offices for both restaurants worked to find new management.
"Have you noticed any roaches there in the last year of inspections?" Reeter asked.
"Well it has not been noted on any of the inspection sheets," said Wekenborg. "That's not to say that they are not present, but the fact that they are not being found and we have not received complaints from any of the food vendors there, any management of the mall or any customer complaints is a positive picture of what is really going on there."
While improvements are being made, health inspectors are still finding issues.
Looking over 2013 inspection reports, Reeter found more than half of the Columbia Mall food court's 16 critical violations came from Stir Fry 88 and Famous Cajun Grill.
Those violations include food out of temperature, no person in charge and soiled knives.
Health officials say they still count on the public to report any concerns to them directly, because an inspection is just a snapshot in time.
Reeter tried to talk with mall management members, but they declined a request for an interview. Calls to Stir Fry 88 and Famous Cajun Grill were never returned.
On the other hand, Capital Mall management took Reeter on a tour to explain the practices the mall has in place to ensure diners are safe.
"Cleanliness is very important throughout the mall, not just the food court," said Capital Mall manager Jamie Reed.
Reed says while all restaurants have to abide by health codes, some have other procedures written in their leases, like being required to professionally degrease every so often. Still, he realizes that some issues may pop up.
"I think you would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant anywhere that doesn't have at least a minor violation here and there," said Reed.
The latest health inspections for the Capital Mall restaurants show there were a couple of critical violations.
At Pretzel Maker, a sink was blocked by several items, which is a concern for inspectors because they want one hand sink open at all times.
Health officials found mold inside an ice maker at Fuji Japanese Steakhouse, which is a critical code violation.
"They always improve year to year," said Jefferson City Environmental Health manager David Grellner. "They get more educated on the violations that we do cite and hope to see improvement from year to year. I would say they are getting better."
The manager for Subway at Capital Mall showed Reeter some of the daily practices the restaurant does to ensure food safety.
"We do [temperature] logs in the morning and late afternoon and if anything is under temp, we throw it away," said manager Anthony Hoose.
While restaurants have a responsibility to make sure they are following health codes, heath officials say there are things diners can do to protect themselves.
One of the biggest recommendations: Hand washing.
Also, if you see an issue that doesn't appear right, inspectors want you to call them.
It was a woman's call last year about the roach in her food at Famous Cajun Grill in Columbia that prompted health officials to investigate, uncovering a number of violations.
If you are curious about a restaurant's background in Columbia, the health department posts the latest inspection reports online. See the reports by clicking here.
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