SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The city of Sioux Falls has the only municipal health department in South Dakota. This is according to Dominic Miller, Environmental Health Manager for the city.

Miller took about 45 minutes out of his day on Tuesday to chat with KELOLAND News about the city’s process for food service inspections, one of the duties of the municipal health department.

Inspected restaurant/service locations in Sioux Falls

Food service establishments,* which I’ll refer to as restaurants moving forward (this is not strictly accurate, as the category also includes school cafeterias, gas stations and more) are subject to two main kinds of inspections, according to Miller. These are a pre-opening inspection, and a routine inspection

*Note: the map also features grocery/processing site, which have been filtered out for this story.

The pre-opening inspection, which exists to ensure a restaurant is ready to actually operate and serve, is not scored, says Miller, but the following inspections are.

The pre-opening inspection is succeeded by a follow-up inspection a few weeks after opening, and after that, restaurants are inspected no less than twice a year.

“They tell us not to be predictable,” said Miller of the inspection schedule. “The pre-opening inspection is scheduled with [the business], but everything after that is not scheduled — for the most part they do not know when we’re coming.”

The scoring system described by Miller is one that works on a point-deduction system. “The food code designates every violation on a weighted system,” he explained. “When the food inspector starts his inspection, every facility starts with a score of 100. As the inspector is making his way through the establishment, they will make note of any violations that are happening.”

Each violation deducts a certain amount of points from a businesses score. Violations more likely to result in someone getting sick, such as cross contamination of food, improper hand washing and improper food temperatures, are weighted more heavily in terms of points. Likewise, those that pose a less direct risk of sickness to patrons, such as a dirty floor or cups stored on the floor, may have a lesser weight.

Critical violations, Miller said, are weighted as a 3, 4 or 5 point violation, while non-critical violations are weighted as 1 or 2 points.

The city breaks scoring down into three tiers, 70-79, 80-89, and 90-100.

Food service inspection point tiers

A restaurant with a score of 100 has zero violations. One with a score in the 70 has numerous, several of which are likely critical.

Pleasantly, when examining the map, Sioux Falls has no restaurants currently in the 70-79 point range in their most inspections.

Snapshot of the city’s map with a score range of 70-79 selected.

While the city’s point system has a basement score of 70, it is technically possible for a restaurant to score lower than this. Miller says this is extremely rare, and if such a thing were to happen, the business would be asked to come in and meet with the director.

Indeed, when looking at the map of the city, nearly all restaurants in town are within the 90-100 point tier on their most recent inspection, with many having no violations.

Miller is glad to see all these data points representing restaurants in the highest tier of inspection scores, noting that the department asks restaurants to try and average at least a 94 between their two inspections each year.

While a higher score is definitely good to see, Miller added a few notes of context.

“Keep in mind that there are places that are required to have a food service license that maybe most people wouldn’t think of — schools for one,” Miller said, noting that these types of establishments tend to have no violations, which may drag the average for the city up.

Miller also noted that a restaurant’s score alone doesn’t necessarily tell the entire story.

“Open [the report] up and don’t just rely on the score itself,” said Miller for anyone who is looking at the map of establishments and their scores. “Open it up and read the inspection.”

Miller advises this step, as you could come away with an entirely different perspective of a location after reading the report than if you just relied on the score.

“Let’s say you have an employee that’s really having a bad day,” Miller began. “They come in — they take their jacket off and they go immediately to work without washing their hands — we’re looking at a 5-point violation right then and there.”

Miller continued the scenario, imagining the employee continues to work and begins handling food with their bare hands, a 3-point critical violation.

“You have one employee that started off having a really bad day and we’re down to a 92 already,” Miller said. Even if everything else with the establishment is immaculate and in perfect working order, that one employee’s mistakes drug the score down.

“But you could also have an establishment where the inspector comes through and the place is literally filthy from the beginning — front door to the back, floors, walls, ceilings are all dirty — likely need to be repaired in some areas,” describes Miller. “These are all 1 and 2-point violations — so you could have an establishment that is very very dirty — likely unappetizing to most of the general public — but their score is going to be 94-95.”

Miller walked through a handful of randomly selected reports with us, helping us gain more insight. The first we selected was a report for the cafeteria at the Avera campus, which has a score of 97.

A 97 is a good score, and as we can see, the deductions came in the form of two violations. A 1-point violation due to the floor in a walk-in freezer needing to be cleaned, and a 2-point violation was given because wiping cloths required to be kept in a sanitizing solution were left lying on counters in the kitchen and coffee bar.

The next one we looked at was one of those falling into the 80-89 range, which appears to indicate that there are notable issues with the establishment. The location we checked on was the kitchen/deli at the Hy-Vee store #3, located on Minnesota Avenue.

This location had a total of five violations, two of which were critical and instrumental on dropping the location into the 80-89 score range.

This location saw a drop from 100 points in their previous inspection to 89 in their latest.

The Hy-Vee kitchen/deli had three non-critical violations, each for 1-point (coolers and walls in need of cleaning, and some ceiling tiles in need of repair), but also had two critical violations; one for 4-points, and one for 5-points.

The 4-point violation was the result of the temperature of the rinse cycle in a dishwashing machine not reaching a high enough temperature, and the 5-point violation came from a container of sausage gravy not being held at the proper temperature of 140°F. While this 5-point violation was given, it was also noted that it was corrected by the heat on the machine being turned up to the proper level.

An easily corrected (and preventable) violation, the holding temperature strike was enough to drop the business down from a 93, which would still be in the top scoring range, down to an 89, and a lower tier.

While a location’s score alone does not tell the whole story, it does give an indication of what you might find. This is especially the case for lower scores.

“Anything that scores an 80 or less, we’re required to have a full follow-up inspection within 30 days,” Miller said. “If you’re scoring an 80 or below, it’s likely that you have a number of critical violations. There’s obviously something going on there that’s going to require a little bit of extra attention.”

Generally, Miller says the operator of the business wants the department to come back in less than 30 days. “Nobody wants those scores,” he said. “They want those violations quickly corrected. They want them documented and they want them on record that they’re taking those serious.”

Miller says that thankfully there are few examples of restaurants scoring an 80 or less each year.

As of April 11, there are only three in the city with a score of 80, and none below.

Sioux Falls restaurants with scores of 80

These locations are Boss’ Pizzeria and Sports Bar on W. Russell St., Manna Bakery and Mini Mart on E. 6th St., and Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet on W. 41st. St.

The Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet saw a drop of three points from its last inspection date, from 83 to 80. Of its seven violations, three were 1-point non-critical violations for using absorbent cardboard on shelves, mops left in buckets rather than properly hung to prevent growth of bacteria, and walls and ceiling vents in need of cleaning.

What really dropped the restaurant’s score were the following critical violations:

  • 4-point food source violation: Raw salmon that had not been properly frozen was being served to customers. Salmon must be frozen at -4°F for seven days to kill potential parasitic worms. This violation was noted as being corrected by proper training, but will require a follow-up inspection if further violations occur.
  • 5-point food display service and transport temperature violation: Time rather than temperature was being used in an improper manner as a control for public health protection. Only 4 days in March had been recorded, while times are required to be recorded every day by all employees. This violation is noted as having been corrected by further education.
  • 3-point insect, rodent, animal control violation: Dead cockroaches were found under the buffet cabinets. No live insects were noted, and the restaurant provided proof that a professional pest-removal company had been used, but due to the presence of dead bugs, the inspector strongly advised an additional treatment. The dead cockroaches were ordered removed from the premises, and the shelves were ordered to be clean.

The Manna Bakery and Mini Market dropped seven points from its previous inspection score of 87. With 10 violations, 8 were non-critical 1 and 2-point violations totaling 12 points, mostly for areas in need of cleaning and improper food storage.

The business also received the following 2 critical violations:

  • 3-point insect, rodent, animal control violation: A wide-open front door would allow for the entrance of rodents or insects.
  • 5-point food display service and transport temperature violation: Beef used for taco meat was not being held at 41°F or below.

The Russell St. Boss’ Pizza location saw a large drop in score from its previous inspection, falling from a top-tier 96 to a bottom-tier 80.

Of its 8 violations, half were non-critical 1 and 2-point violations regarding areas in need of cleaning and undated food kept in coolers.

There were also the following critical violations:

  • 4-point cold and hot storage equipment violation: Pizza assembly and cooler units were not functioning adequately.
  • 3-point handwashing, lavatories and supplies violation: None of the paper towel dispensers at the three hand sinks were functioning, and no paper towels were available.
  • 4-point sanitization of equipment and utensils violation: There was not enough chlorine sanitizer in the final rinse of the dishwashing machine.
  • 3-point insect, rodent and animal control violation: A damaged door sweep on the back door of the restaurant would allow for insects and rodents to enter.

Miller, looking at the drop in Bozz’ Pizza’s score, spoke about what such a change could mean for a restaurant.

“Just based on my experience, Jacob, when I see an establishment go from a 96 to an 80, the first thing that jumps out to me is they probably have a lot of employee turnover,” Miller said. “My guess is that the manager team that was there the day they scored a 96 is no longer around — for them to drop off that quickly, that tells me there’s something going on with staffing.”

Miller says that any restaurant within the 80-89 score range is almost sure to have at least one critical violation. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t go there, but Miller says if you’re so inclined, it is fair to ask if the violation has been corrected.

“I think it perfectly within the right of a patron to ask and say ‘hey I just looked at your inspection score and saw you had a dish machine that wasn’t working properly — are those things corrected at this point?’,” said Miller.

One other important thing to remember when looking at these food inspection reports was mentioned by Miller. “Keep in mind, it’s really just a snapshot,” he said. “We’re not in there every day. It’s just a snapshot of what was going on in that restaurant on that day at that particular time.”