To know that the fixture Lincoln District restaurant Vien Dong was ordered May 3 to close for six months for health-code violations, you’d have to do your research.
The restaurant door is locked, with no visible explanation save the word “Dirty!” graffitied onto an exterior sign. The only sign in the window two weeks into the closure was a pair of small notes in Vietnamese. They said the restaurant is hiring kitchen help.
What isn’t explained to a passerby — or a returning regular customer — is the litany of food-safety violations the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said were committed at the restaurant, which has operated since 1989. Five days after the May 3 shutdown order, and three days after a News Tribune story appeared about it, the public agency detailed the situation in a news release still available on its website, an exception to the department’s longstanding policy.
For years, the county’s health department has regularly provided little, if any, public notice that a restaurant’s practices are so unsafe it has had to be closed, unlike neighboring King and Thurston counties. This keeps diners from making fully-informed choices about where they want to eat, a food-safety lawyer said.
“That’s sort of the way people did it 25 or 30 years ago,” said William Marler, a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety issues. “There has been a real movement over the last decade to being much more transparent.”
More than 20 times over the last five years, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department has shut down a restaurant for 24 hours or longer because of food-safety concerns. Shutdowns happened across the continuum of restaurant extravagance. Three Subway shops and three different establishments with pho in the name were shut down. So were the higher-end WildFin American Grill on Ruston Way and The Melting Pot downtown.
During that time, the department has posted more than 150 news releases to its website. Only one, the May 8 statement about Vien Dong, discloses a restaurant closure. The other restaurant closures, including three separate violation-related 24-hour closures of Vien Dong, are not disclosed to the public.
Learning that a restaurant has violated food-safety rules to the point that government inspectors shut it down is easier in neighboring Thurston and King counties.
Public Health — Seattle & King County offers an email alert service every time a restaurant is ordered to shut down. As of this month, nearly 5,000 subscribers received its alerts, said Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for the King County agency. The alerts can warn of even short-term closures.
“The more information, the better,” Karasz said. “The people do want this information.”
An alert went out Wednesday when a missing permit caused the shutdown of Quehvé Bistro in Redmond for 5 1/2 hours. The agency also maintains a list of current and recent closures on its website.
“It’s a pretty popular page,” Karasz said.
In Thurston County, the health department has plans to emulate aspects of King County’s restaurant inspection website. This will likely include its updated closure information, said Sammy Berg, who supervises Thurston County’s food inspectors.
Even before this is done, the agency provides more shutdown information than the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and in the most low-tech of ways: an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper taped to the closed restaurant’s door.
Edie Jeffers, spokeswoman for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, said the agency’s website includes recent upgrades that list all violations.
A user must look up each individual restaurant by name; there is no map or food-genre search capacity. Nor is there any way to divine if a restaurant has ever been shut down.
After The News Tribune asked about this situation earlier this week, Jeffers said Thursday Tacoma’s health department plans to start an email notification service for restaurant shutdowns.
Beginning in six weeks, the new service will send an alert anytime a restaurant is shuttered for 24 hours or longer by inspectors.
The public has not been notified up until now, she said, because the current inspections database doesn’t have an efficient way to cull out and present closure notices.
“It has to do with the limitations of the database that we have,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with protecting businesses.”
There is, she added, no penalty for a Pierce County restaurant that doesn’t put up a sign explaining its sudden closure.
“Our past practice has been to allow a closed restaurant to make their own sign to state they are closed,” Jeffers said. “Our main concern is that they are closed and not serving food.”
Marler, the food-safety attorney, said he looks up whatever inspection reports he can find when his work takes him traveling through unfamiliar cities. He said he favors more agencies sending out alerts and making an updated list of closures widely available.
“It takes a lot for a health inspector to shut down a restaurant,” he said. “They don’t do that sort of willy-nilly, and so if the health department has taken the extraordinary step of shutting a restaurant down, the public has a right to know that whether you’re an immune-compromised person or a soccer coach taking your players out for a meal after a soccer game.”