Since January, Michael Allison has visited all of the nearly 130 restaurants along Washington Road, on Walton Way and in Surrey Center.
The Richmond County environmental health specialist will visit them all again by June, grading each for cleanliness, food management practices and general compliance with state health laws.
After regularly peering into the kitchens of area restaurants for 10 years, Mr. Allison said he would feel comfortable dining at almost any local establishment -- save a few he won't name.
"When you're sitting in the dining room, there's no way to know what's going on in the kitchen," Mr. Allison said as he completed his inspections for the first quarter of 2000.
By conducting regular health inspections and making sure restaurants post their scores in plain view, health inspectors say they help remove some of the mystery surrounding kitchen goings-on.
Every local restaurant gets an unannounced visit from Mr. Allison or another health inspector four times a year, even though the state requires only two surprise inspections annually. Every restaurant rating is based on a Food Service Establishment Inspection Report. The report contains 41 requirements -- everything from the use of hair restraints to temperature ranges for dishwashing machines.
"It's hard to get a 100," Mr. Allison acknowledged. "I like to give out good scores, because it means I'm doing my job and they're doing theirs. But it's also an incentive to have a good operation."
And some health code violations are worse than others, Mr. Allison said.
Inspection reports categorize violations based on their severity. Category I violations are the worst because they create an "imminent threat to the public health." Category I items include working hand-washing facilities, safe food-handling techniques to prevent cross contamination, and temperature regulations for coolers and buffet tables.
"Category I's are not that commonplace," Mr. Allison said.
The most frequently cited violation is improper hair restraint, a Category II item, he said.
Health codes state that Category II and III items are less hazardous but should be corrected to prevent food-borne illnesses and maintain acceptable food-management practices.
Restaurants that don't sufficiently meet health code regulations, committing several Category I or Category II violations, are given a "reasonable amount of time" to correct any serious violations.
Then a health inspector will conduct a follow-up inspection within a few weeks, and if violations still exist, the establishment could face suspension or revocation of its operating permit.
But Mr. Allison says such actions are a last resort.
"Our job is not to close a place down -- that's not good business," he said. "We want to make sure they are serving a good product to the community and make sure they're meeting the standard."
Even if an infraction can be fixed immediately, such as by moving a trash can or turning a temperature control switch, it will show up on the report, Mr. Allison said.
"I figure they should know these rules as well as I do," Mr. Allison said. "They should be ready for me any time -- ready for the health inspector any time."
Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.