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Corona Village fails four of five health inspections in '13

Eric Pelayo, manager of Corona Village in Mitchell, stocks the bar Thursday afternoon. Corona Village failed four out of five health inspections last year. (Sean Ryan/The Daily Republic)

One Mitchell restaurant failed more state health inspections last year than all of the city's other licensed food-service establishments combined.

Corona Village, a Mexican restaurant at 1101 S. Burr St., failed four out of five health inspections in 2013. According to records from the South Dakota Department of Health, a total of 150 inspections were conducted at 85 food-service establishments in Mitchell in 2013. Of those 150 inspections, seven resulted in a failing score -- a pass rate of more than 95 percent.

That means Corona Village was responsible for more than half of the failed health inspections last year in Mitchell.

"At the end of the day, it's our responsibility to get it done and we've got to take the blame for it," said Eric Pelayo, manager of Corona Village, in an interview with The Daily Republic.

Pelayo said Corona Village failed inspections because of multiple, minor violations, including an employee leaving a drink cup on a surface meant for food preparation.

"It's common sense, but it's those things that when you're busy, you just kind of overlook them because it doesn't seem like the biggest thing," he said.

The full reports prepared by inspectors during Corona Village's five health inspections last year, obtained by The Daily Republic from the state Department of Health, show the restaurant was docked points for some minor violations, but also for issues with uncleanliness and mold.

Bill Chalcraft, an official with the state Department of Health, said his office has a "pending legal action" against Corona Village, but he declined to divulge any additional information about that action. Establishments can be temporarily shut down because of repeated failures.

"Typically, what happens is they get a hearing notice," Chalcraft said. "Then they usually go before an administrative law judge."

Pelayo said Corona Village has been in periodic contact with the state as it works to resolve the issues that led to its failed inspections. But, Pelayo said, the restaurant will not be forced to temporarily close, at least as far as he knows.

"They call and check up on us and make sure things are being done," he said.

There are no other pending legal actions related to health inspections in Mitchell. It's a rare occurrence for an establishment in South Dakota to repeatedly fail health inspections and have to be temporarily closed, Chalcraft said.

"We typically try to work with the operators and bring them into compliance rather than close them."

Inspection process

State health inspections are scored on a 100-point scale with a score of 80 or greater considered a pass, while anything less than 80 is a fail. All licensed food-service establishments are subject to health inspections, from full-fledged restaurants to convenience stores that serve prepared food to the public.

In most cases, a failed inspection results in a follow-up visit in about 60 days to make sure all violations have been corrected.

During an inspection, points are deducted for minor violations, such as cleanliness or equipment problems, and for critical violations that can cause illness or injury, such as storing food at unsafe temperatures.

Most food-service providers have two routine inspections each year, plus any follow-up inspections made necessary by failing scores. They are not notified about inspections in advance.

Reports describe violations

The full inspection reports from Corona Village's five health inspections last year outline the violations that led to the restaurant's repeated failures.

On March 3, during a routine inspection, the inspector deducted points for cross contamination between cooked and uncooked food, a critical violation, and also for issues with uncleanliness. The restaurant scored a 79, but passed a follow-up inspection with an 83 on May 22, though points were again deducted for cross contamination.

The restaurant scored a 78 on its next routine inspection Aug. 29, with points deducted because no sanitizer was found in the dishwasher and a chemical spray bottle containing bleach was hung on a shelf where clean tableware was stored. Mold was found on a cutting board, on the walls inside the freezer and on the wall near the dishwasher, the report says.

Corona Village fared even worse on its follow-up inspection Nov. 20 with a score of 76. Points were deducted for similar issues with uncleanliness and mold, for unlabeled foods in the freezer and for an employee touching ready-to-serve food. Points were also taken away because a whole fish was found inside a 5-gallon bucket in the restaurant, which the report says the owner was unable to identify and could not produce documents to show it was a commercial fish.

Pelayo offered an explanation for the mysterious fish.

"Somebody went fishing," Pelayo said. "They came in and they didn't want to leave it in their car so they left it out back."

The fish was left inside the restaurant's back door but not inside the freezer, all without the knowledge of the staff, Pelayo said.

"Nobody even knew about that," he said. "Everybody was trying to figure out whose fish it was."

The restaurant failed its third inspection in a row Dec. 31 with a 76, with points deducted again for issues with uncleanliness and mold, for unlabeled foods in the freezer and for an employee touching ready-to-serve food.

Pelayo said the issues with mold were likely caused by water leaking in as a result of damage caused by a hail storm in May 2012.

"Basically, it was getting wet where it shouldn't be," he said.

That problem has been fixed, he said.

Lack of space blamed

Pelayo said other violations are due to a lack of space in the restaurant for adequate storage. Indeed, Pelayo is forced to squeeze past stacks of boxes containing beer and other bar supplies just to reach his office in the back of the restaurant.

"Business has grown," he said. "So, of course if you have bigger demand, you have to have more food in stock."

That sometimes results in boxes of food being put in the wrong place, Pelayo said. It's a problem the restaurant is trying to fix by looking into custom-built shelves and, someday, an expanded storage area, Pelayo said.

Otherwise, Pelayo said, many of the violations are simply the result of employee carelessness.

"We're always reminding them," he said. "We always have staff meetings to remind them of certain little things."

Corona Village's health inspection problems appear to have started suddenly. The restaurant passed all of its inspections in 2011 and 2012, with scores of 92, 83, 90 and 89.

Three different restaurants are responsible for the other three failed inspections last year in Mitchell.

Perkins scored a 68 on Jan. 30, 2013. That's the lowest score recorded last year in Mitchell, but the restaurant passed a follow-up inspection in April with an 85, and has passed two more routine inspections since then.

Ruby Tuesday scored a 79 on Aug. 24, but passed a follow-up inspection in November with a 91 and a routine inspection in January with a 93.

Pizza Ranch scored a 72 on Jan. 31, 2013, but passed a follow-up inspection in April with an 86 and a routine inspection in August with an 80.