Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hooter's Culture of Critical Safety Violations.

A while back, I wrote a piece that graded Hooter's(they got a C) and provided many suggestions on improvements that need to be made.  A couple weeks back, I had reached a saturation point with Hooter's culture of food safety - or lack there of.  I contacted the person running their twitter acct, who then gave me an email address to officially respond to.  I was happy that my complaints would be taken seriously, and hopeful that I would be part of their process of addressing these issues and ultimately changing them.

I received no response.

I then contacted the Cincinnati Inquirer who gave me an email of a reporter who might take a look into the issue - she didn't.  The Inquirer did suggest that I take the issue up with a local news station, which I haven't done.  I didn't want this to be about me getting on tv.  Before I go any further, let me share the letter I emailed to what I understood to be Hooter's Corporate.

"Dear sir or madame;

   I am Sam Vance.  You know me from as @samvance.  I mean to email you in order to make you aware of issues that may heavily impact your operations, but first, let me give you a background on myself.

   I am a Fall 2007 graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in Food Business Management.  My studies included deep immersion into food science, food safety, and operations management for the food industry.  I also have several years of management experience in restaurant management with KFC as well as seven years of total work experience at that chain.  I know food safety from both an industrial and a restaurant level and I know chicken.  Of course I'm not bragging, but rather, laying a foundation so that you don't disregard this email as ill-informed or hysterical.  I have long been a fan of Hooters, and let me say that what I tell you or suggest to you in this email should not be construed as me stating my hatred for the chain.  Quite the contrary, I see great opportunities in improving key issues that I have observed in not just the Newport, KY location, but across several states.

   I went to the Newport location last evening to take advantage of the All You Can Eat promotion and sat at the bar since I was dining alone.  What I observed in the next hour or so astounded me.

I witnessed numerous instances of cross contamination, including:

*Employees grabbing flour covered baskets, then immediately grabbing bowls to sauce wings as well as grabbing the wings themselves.
*I saw an employee put a dirty bowl on top of a bowl of cooked and unsauced wings in order to carry them both to another table.
*I saw sauced chicken falling off the bowl of cooked product on to the uncleaned prep table, only to be picked up and set on the plate and served.
*Employees who had just removed their vinyl gloves(after touching raw product, as they should) but then carrying the bowl used to toss the wings with their bare hands(with their thumb inside of the sauce covered bowl).  This bowl was used for the rest of the night without being cleaned.

*I personally witnessed the manager, Chris, handle prepared foods with his bare hands. His hands were flour covered.  He also picked up a stray tater-tot from the prep table and put it on a customers plate.  He then wipes his floured hands on the front of his jeans before scooping cheese sauce for a server.  He had flour going up his arm to the elbow and the flour by his elbow remained the entire time I was there.  During this time he was constantly reaching into and over things.

  I will say that the two black guys working in the back did an excellent job swapping out gloves in between going from raw to cooked, but all kitchen employees(manager included) treated the gloves as an alternative to hand washing.  In most cases, they wore the gloves too long, didn't wash hands before changing gloves, and did a poor job in the few instances that hands were washed(like still having flour on the arm an hour later).  I'll also say that I have never seen a manager wear a hat when going back to help in the kitchen.  Why?  The cooks obviously cover their heads and so should the manager.

  This all seems very harsh, but let me say that this is a system wide issue.  I have seen issues similar to this and a couple worse in Hooter's in Burlington VT, Columbus OH, other Cincinnati area locations, and in Florida.  My reaction would be to assume that either this is common practice, or this is unavoidable due to the procedures in place.  Either way, your chain plays Russian Roulette with the public's safety on a daily basis and it is miraculous that you have avoided major lawsuits.  This could be due to the fact that people get food borne illness many more times a year than what is reported and since this is a bar, the patrons may be blaming some of it on the alcohol.  Of course, the other explanation is much more sad - they don't complain because that is the kind of thing they expect from Hooters.

   Let me also say that the bartender who served me last night(Chrissy/Christy?) was very nice and even sensed that something was wrong.  In fact, she notified Chris, who personally came over to ask if everything was alright.  I didn't bring any of this up because in a crowded restaurant, I'm sure Chris would have only become defensive and suspected that I was trying to cause a scene.  He even sensed that I was holding something back when he asked, 'Are you sure?'

   This issue goes beyond one location, however, and several changes do need to take place in order to reduce your system's liability.  I have many ideas that will streamline some of your processes as well as guard against food safety issues.  If you like, I can discuss these over the phone or in person.  Again, I am not trying to harm this restaurant chain.  I am a fan of the food and want to help Hooters operate in a way which doesn't put the consumer's safety at risk.

Thank you for your time and consideration in both reading and responding to this email,
Sam Vance.

614.905.xxxx Feel free to call."

I redacted the last 4 digits of my cell phone  numbers and corrected the word 'excellent', which I misspelled.  Other than that, this was the email I sent and the issues are very real.

For those unaware, cross contamination is anytime cooked product comes into contact with uncooked product.  For example:
Raw chicken is breaded in <---> flour.
Flour is on employees <---> hands(gloves optional here).
Uncleaned  hand touches <---> fry basket and is lowered into the fryer.
Product done & another employee lifts fry basket with <---> flour on the handle.
Product dumped into metal bowl <---> bowl carried by hand that touched flour(with thumb hooking inside of the bowl).
Product taken out of that bowl by hand and placed into yet <---> another bowl.
Bowl gripped on the side with thumb on the inside of the saucing bowl <---> and sauce is added and tossed with the wings.
Wing dumped onto a plate which are served <---> to you.
It may seem inconsequential, but you have now ingested whatever salmolnella was in that chicken before cooking due to cross contamination.  Although the wings are heated to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria and the sauce probably has a low enough amount of free water to prevent bacterial growth, the mixture of chicken grease, sauce residue(same bowls used all night), and freshly inoculated thumb do create an environment where harmful microorganisms can not only survive, but thrive.  The surface of the wing is not hot enough for long enough to kill the bacteria it encounters after cooking.

A week after this incident, which occurred the last Wednesday in February, I ventured out to the Florence Hooter's to see if things were any better.

They were not.

The added insult to injury was the inattentive service I got, partly due to it being during a shift change and partly due to the bartender chatting with the regulars.  The kitchen was left understaffed for the shift change.  I'm not sure if people were late, or there was only one 1st shifter in the kitchen, but there was only one person for a while.  The number one enemy of food safety is time.  Something left out too long creates an environment where bacteria grow, and not enough time in the kitchen means that corners get cut.  Food safety lives in these corners and this is where people get sick.

The lone cook, who I think was named Aaron or Eric, had a very troublesome habit.  He worked with a vinyl glove on one hand and no glove on another.  I have observed this practice at several locations, including the putrid Newport restaurant.  People are supposed to be told that these gloves are no substitute for hand washing and that the gloves have to be changed whenever going from raw to cooked or non-food to food.  My theory is that this cook worked Jackson Style to avoid washing his hands and changing his glove.  The ungloved hand held the sauce bowl(thumb in bowl!!) while the gloved hand breaded the product.  When he needed to plate food, he took off the glove but did not wash his hands.

The title to this blog is a clickable link.  You'll see that I'm not alone in these complaints.  If Hooter's management reads this and is upset... you should be.  Correct this before it really costs you.  I am more than willing to consult with you on ways to improve your processes and increase safety.  This blog is long enough and I think I'll leave my specific suggestions for another time.


  1. Sam,

    Let's hope your letter gets a response. I think it is well written and straight forward.

  2. Thank you. I really did approach this from an 'I'm not out to get you' angle and hope they took it that way.

  3. I hope they take action. In the limited times I have eaten there, I have seen many issues as well. General cleanliness has been bad in and of itself. Any insight in the closing of the Beechmont / Cherry Grove location on 125?

  4. Well the Beechmont location surprised me since it always seemed busy and really seemed to feed off of the BW-3 crowd as well as bikers. I have read that sales have been down for Hooters, so I'm thinking they thinned out their flock, so to speak. Fewer locations that are busier, even if they lose customers along the way, is more profitable in the long run as it reduces their amount of costs for things like facilities and training, and labor.


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