Salmonella outbreak spurs major changes at Breckenridge restaurant
January 18, 2017
After a salmonella outbreak caused Oscar's of Breckenridge to shut down for six days near the end of July, the restaurant has started to bounce back, but under a new, albeit familiar name.
In the past, the restaurant operated under two names, Oscar's and the Breckenridge Tap House, but was more commonly known as just Oscar's. After the outbreak, which sickened at least 16 people, the sign for Oscar's was taken down. The owners had decided to embrace the other name, one not associated with food-borne illnesses, exclusively.
Co-owner of Oscar's, Jeff Palomo, said that the decision to develop the other identity of the restaurant came after the outbreak. Palomo and his former wife, Margarita Nocera, still own the building, but have now contracted a restaurant management company to run the business. While he was managing Oscar's, Palomo was also working in Denver. It was an arrangement that he found ultimately unworkable.
"This summer made us realize that it is never easy to admit one's vulnerabilities. We were managing Oscar's while maintaining other business interests in Colorado," Palomo wrote in an email to the Summit Daily. "We recognized that our customers and staff in Breckenridge deserved professional management 24/7."
Nocera said that the company, CC Management and Development Corp., handles all new employment for the restaurant. She added that a new back-of-house staff was brought in by the company, but that some of the servers and bartenders continue to work at the restaurant. The company took over the business in November of last year. Steve Cominsky, the owner and founder of CC Management and Development Corp., said that the basics for the new staff are to teach, train and hold people accountable.
"This business certainly relies on great training, but just as much on the people you are training," he wrote in an email to the Summit Daily.
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After the salmonella outbreak occurred, the restaurant went through a round of inspections. Most recently, the Breckenridge Tap House was inspected on Dec. 30. Steve Prosise, a senior environmental health specialist with Summit County's health department, said that because of the restaurant's recent history, he performed an in-depth inspection at the restaurant. While many of the offenses found during the summer have been corrected, the restaurant was cited for handling food without gloves. This is something inspections have found in the restaurant in the past. For violations like this, Prosise said that the department will usually do on-site training during the inspection to train staff how to rectify the issue. They frequently will also work with management to schedule additional training if necessary.
On July 15, Summit County's Environmental Health Department held an inspection at Oscar's after three cases of salmonella had been reported. All three cases reported visiting Oscar's in the first week of July. Eventually, 16 cases of salmonella were reported.
The inspection found that several staff members had been working with symptoms of illness. Several of the coolers and refrigerators were above the required temperature for storing perishable foods. The restaurant had to dispose of $1,266.95 worth of food after inspectors observed spoilage or food near uncooked meats. The dishwasher had no recordable levels of sanitizer.
Throughout July and August, Oscar's went through five different inspections, follow-ups after the restaurant was forced to close for six days on July 15.
The restaurant was allowed to reopen under restrictions on July 22. An inspection that day found that several of the items had not been corrected. While some of the staff was cleared to begin working, others still showed signs of illness. Several coolers and fridges were still not at the correct temperature range. Another $1,340 worth of food was thrown out, including five cases of mahi-mahi fish valued at $390.
"Temperature control is one of our biggest concerns, but it's also unfortunately one of our most frequently written-up violations," said Dan Hendershott, the environmental health manager for the county.
The health department's reports show that everything was corrected by July 25. But during an inspection in early August, the coolers were once again reported at the wrong temperature. Palomo said that it was important that the restaurant continue working with the county to maintain a healthy business.
"When the summer incident occurred, we cooperated with health officials to address the issue at every step along the way," Palomo wrote. "Even after being cleared to reopen, we continued to take extensive efforts in retraining all staff and creating new procedures to ensure our practices in the kitchen and throughout the restaurant were to the highest standards."
Hendershott said that because Summit County has 400 restaurants, and only one and a half people doing retail food inspections, education is usually the first step with restaurants that have violations.
"Our number one means of gaining compliance is always education," he said. "Our top priority is maintaining food safety in the patrons, the restaurant operator's top priority is maintaining food safety in their patrons. We share that same goal."
If a restaurant has multiple violations in a short time, it enters into a sort of probation where inspections are made more frequently to ensure violations are corrected and maintained. If violations keep occurring Hendershott said that restaurants enter into a penalty process and can eventually have their license revoked. Hendershott said that it is rare for a restaurant to go into the penalty process. In the 13 years that he has been with the county, only one location has had their license revoked.
Because multiple visits found violations at Oscar's, the restaurant was inspected more frequently, and came close to having penalties. In October, the health department sent them a letter declaring no further action was needed.
Cominsky said that part of the plan for the Breckenridge Tap House is to continue working with the health department.
Despite the outbreak and the difficulties that followed, Palomo said it was still hard to say goodbye to Oscar's. He and his wife had purchased the Main Street property in February of 2011. They renovated the property, starting with a new foundation, before opening Oscar's in 2013.
"We really wanted to know how this could have happened here. We truly believed we had procedures and systems in place to prevent such an incident," Palomo wrote. "We've learned that one must remain vigilant, constantly on guard and evaluating opportunities to continually improve."