The 24th Street corridor has become the most inviting street in the city for rats, records show.
Mission Loc@l found that city health officials have closed at least 11 restaurants citywide in the last year for vermin infestations. Of those, five were in the Mission District, and three of the five were on 24th Street: China Fun Fast Food at 3166, Usulutan Restaurant at 2990 and El Nuevo Fruitlandia at 3077.
All three abated the violations and reopened, records show.
Elsewhere along 24th, one restaurant received a “moderate risk” violation, which means inspectors found rat droppings that were either old or far away from the kitchen. Ten others received “low risk” warnings, which indicates they had environments where vermin can hide. No other corridor in the Mission came close to having as many rodent closures and warnings this year.
But records indicate that a restaurant on 24th could just as easily have a high rating. In fact, most of the restaurants on the corridor have consistently received health inspection ratings of 90 and above, including Dominguez Mexican Bakery, El Tio Chilo’s Grill and La Torta Gorda.
Why some restaurants maintain high scores while others fail can be attributed to hygiene practices, heath inspectors said. Several vermin experts agreed that if an establishment creates a situation where vermin can move in, they will. Helen Zverina, senior health inspector in the vector control program in the Department of Public Health, said rats roam throughout San Francisco, but that “it is up to the owners not to let vermin inside.”
Health inspectors from different county departments and a pest control provider said the most common reasons for infestations include old buildings, which have more spaces for rats to hide, nearby construction, poor hygiene practices, lack of food knowledge, and insufficient pest control.
“Often times, the first thing to go is their pest control services when they are cutting cost,” said Alicia Enriquez of Sacramento’s Department of Environmental Health.
In the case of El Chico Produce Market on the corner of 24th and Alabama, lack of food-handling knowledge was the problem. On June 1, a health inspector found several violations, including the most serious — the staff left a garbage can open, attracting flies. The inspector also found that no employee had a food safety certificate, which is required by law, and gave them 30 days to acquire one.
Fernando Cerdan, the market’s manager, said the violations have been fixed and an employee is enrolled in the food safety program. Records show that the market abated all violations on June 10.
Ines Blanco, the owner of El Nuevo Fruitlandia, said keeping up with the maintenance of her kitchen became increasingly difficult as her own economic situation worsened. Her husband, who works in construction, was out of work for a year and a half. They lost two homes in the mortgage crisis and are in a lot of debt.
Once a source of pride, the restaurant, which she acquired 15 years ago after working as a waitress there for seven years, had not received a score below a 90 in half a decade. Then, on March 24, inspectors closed it because of a “rodent infestation.”
The inspection was a wake-up call for her, Blanco said. “The inspector was impressed with how clean it was after that.” They abated the violation two days later.
Still, she is contemplating closing the place down. It’s been years since she made a profit.
Most of the restaurants that have good scores now have also scored well in the past. The owners and health officials said that their high scores have to do with pride, and with establishing and maintaining strong hygiene practices.
“Hygiene is the number-one priority,” said Elizabeth Vazquez, owner of El Tio Chilo’s, which has scored above 90 since 2007. She said she instills good food-handling habits in her employees because she used to work as a waitress in a strict restaurant.
This is also the case of Luis Bolanos, the manager of La Torta Gorda, which has not scored below 95 since 2007.
“You need to have your basic ingredients and not overproduce,” Bolanos said. “It’s also the habits you pick up over the years, as well as following the advice of the inspector.”
El Tio Chilo, Sushi Bistro and La Torta Gorda proudly display their 100 scores in the front window.
Meanwhile, the restaurants cited for vermin did not have their green scorecards or inspection reports on display.
El Chico Produce, which did not close, had its inspection report posted at the entrance, but the date on it was 2008.
Restaurants are not required to post their green scorecards. Inspection reports “must be posted or presented if requested,” according to the city’s guidelines.
“Customers care if your restaurant is clean,” Vazquez said. “I know I would.”