GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) -- When Kent County health inspectors shut down the popular downtown Grand Rapids XO Asian Cuisine, they called it unprecedented.
They had found all kinds of conditions that could make you sick, including chicken left at room temperature, food stored under a sewer line and dead rats.
But a Target 8 investigation has uncovered other well-known Kent County restaurants still open despite similar numbers of health-threatening violations. Some have faced small fines; others no fines at all.
A former Kent County health supervisor questions why the worst violators are still open.
"They should care about it because No. 1, it's their own health. You can get sick from it and you could die from it if you are compromised -- the young child, maybe 6 years and less, or maybe the elderly," said former Kent County health supervisor William DeHaan, who now teaches college classes on restaurant safety.
Target 8 spent four months examining more than 10,000 Kent County violation reports, along with hundreds of complaints, enforcement records and reports of foodborne illnesses.
Reporters also tested temperatures on the buffet of the county's top violator, finding meat that the former health supervisor called potentially hazardous.
Target 8 used a spreadsheet to sort through violations and rank restaurants and other licensed food establishments based on the most serious violations over three years -- 2014 through the end of 2016.
BIG JUMPS IN VIOLATIONS, COMPLAINTS
The county's 10 health inspectors routinely check every restaurant, unannounced, twice a year. They also conduct follow-up inspections and investigate based on complaints.
The worst violations, the ones that can make you sick, are labeled priority.
Across the county, priority violations and complaints jumped about 30 percent over three years -- a surprise to Kent County health officials.
At the former XO Asian Cuisine at 58 Monroe Center NW, county health sanitarians reported 30 health-threatening violations over three years. The county ordered it closed in April 2016 after fining it $6,000 -- by far the biggest fine issued in three years.
But XO Asian Cuisine ranked fourth in the county in serious violations, according to Target 8's findings.
Oriental Asian Buffet at 5316 Clyde Park Ave. SW in Wyoming, also known as Asian Garden, ranked first with 39 health-threatening violations, nearly half of them last year alone.
Records also show nine complaints filed against Oriental Asian Buffet over three years, more than any other restaurant among the top 10 violators, including XO Asian Cuisine.
Among the complaints against Oriental Asian Buffet: Silverfish "everywhere," including on plates at the buffet; a one-inch piece of metal in the macaroni and cheese; cockroaches; and food that wasn't warm enough.
Inspectors have found roaches, raw squid and chicken stored over ready-to-eat food, potentially hazardous food kept at the wrong temperature, and more. The last full inspection of 2016, which happened in November, found "significant food safety risks."
With all those violations, along with customer complaints and a reported illness, the county fined Oriental Asian Buffet three times, totaling $600, last year.
DeHaan, the former Kent County health supervisor, said he wouldn't eat at a restaurant with so many violations.
"No, I wouldn't, no. I'm fussy," he said.
He said Oriental Asian Buffet should no longer be in business.
"No, not in my book, no," he said.
REST OF THE TOP 10
"Many times a restaurant, when you go into it, and it doesn't matter what restaurant it is, you're looking at it from outside, you're not in the kitchen, you don't know what goes on in the kitchen and you get your idea of sanitation, is everything good, by what you see out front," DeHaan said. "But it can be totally different in back, and it can be your favorite place having all those criticals, too."
The rest of the top 10 biggest violators included some popular places:
2: Chinatown, 69 28th St. SW in Wyoming
3: Tavern on the Square, 100 Ionia Ave. SW
5: *Linc Up Soul Cafe, 1167 Madison Ave. SE
6: Bull's Head Tavern, 188 Monroe Ave. NW
7: Mandarin, 2460 28th ST. SE
8: Tillman's, 1245 Monroe Ave. NW
9: The former Brandywine, 1345 Lake Dr. SE
10: Arnie's Bakery, 722 Leonard St. NW
Between them, the county issued nine fines totaling less than $1,500.
The violations at the former Brandywine all were found before new owners bought it and changed its name to Matchbox Diner & Drinks.
Target 8 found nearly 60 restaurants in Kent County with at least 20 priority violations over three years, including other big names.
MAKING YOU SICK
Niki Konetzka said her 16-year-old son was sick for two days with severe diarrhea and stomach cramps after eating from the buffet at Oriental Asian Buffet in September.
"As we were eating, my son said the chicken didn't taste good," Konetzka said. "I went to cut it open and my food, I'd already put my plate away, because it was cold."
She wrote an online review.
"I called the manager and he started yelling at me," she wrote in the review. "I told him the food was cold and it was raw and if he could take it back and the gentleman started yelling at us, and yelling at my children, and telling us if we don't like the food, to get out."
"I walked out in tears," she said.
"I think they should be shut down, Konetzka told Target 8. "Absolutely. This is health and safety for the customers who are paying good money to have bad food."
Two months later, in November 2016, another customer complained to the health department about Oriental Asian Buffet.
"I was sick all night with diarrhea and lower intestinal pain," the customer wrote. "It appears from the online info that they were last inspected in 2012, with a number of violations reported. Please check them out as I don’t want others to get sick. Thank you."
The complaint led to a full inspection that uncovered "significant food safety risks," a county inspector wrote. It also led to a conference between the county and the restaurant.
Kent County Health Department officials defended their handling of restaurants, including Oriental Asian Buffet.
"We have the burden of due process," health department spokesman Steve Kelso said. "It's not a numbers thing for us. You can have 39 violations and not get closed. You can have one violation and get closed."
They say they follow rules set by the county and reviewed by the state -- a "progressive enforcement" system that includes fines, conferences and hearings. The goal, they say, is safe food, not closed doors.
"We certainly have a hammer in our tool drawer," Kelso said. "We really don't like to go to it. Again, we would like you to work with us, and we'd like you to serve safe food to the good and great people of Kent County. If necessary, we can go to that drawer and there is a hammer there."
Across the U.S. in 2015, restaurants, caterers and banquet facilities were tied to 663 foodborne outbreaks, 8,847 illnesses and one death, CDC records show.
The same year, in Michigan, they were linked to 30 foodborne illness outbreaks, 621 illnesses, but no deaths, state records show.
That's down from 40 outbreaks, 1,126 illnesses and three deaths in 2014.
Most of the known illnesses were linked to norovirus or salmonella.
Over the last three years in Kent County, more than 600 people have reported getting foodborne illnesses from restaurants and other food establishments.
>>Inside woodtv.com: Dirty Dining
'IN A WORD, FILTH'
Heather Rebone wrote a Google review several months ago about Tavern on the Square, a popular downtown bar and restaurant.
"In a word, filth," she wrote. "It was very horrendous. A health inspection dream to shut down."
Tavern on the Square ranked third in the county with 32 priority violations over three years. The county fined it once for $100.
"Wow, it surprises me very much that they would still be in business," Rebone told Target 8.
Target 8 reached out to owners or managers of the top 10 violators -- at least the eight still open under the same ownership. Most refused to go on camera; some complained that inspectors are getting pickier.
But not the managing partner of Tavern on the Square.
"These violations are something you don't want, but it does help you learn and improve every time," Managing Partner Dax Hylarides told Target 8.
"I think we had kind of a rough year in 2015," he continued. "We've made some changes, obviously, to our staffing, and I just think we've grown and improved drastically."
The last time the health department showed up at his restaurant, in early April, they found no violations, records show.
"A perfect inspection, which I thrive for," the general manager said.
*Editor's note: Following this story, Linc Up Soul Cafe issued a statement on its website. You can find it by clicking or tapping here.
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