Laverene Williams, a 70-year-old Germantown resident, had never seen a rat in a grocery store before. That changed in August.
“My first instinct was to scream and just get out of there,” she said, describing the rodent which ran across her path on the way to the checkout line at the LaSalle Fresh Grocer.
However, when Williams told the store management about the encounter, she said they acknowledged a mouse problem, but not one with rats.
“They tried to tell me what I saw. That insults my intelligence, so I’m upset,” she complained of a subsequent runaround resulting in a promise of a store tour that never happened.
Later, Williams filed a complaint with the Health Department. For their part, Fresh Grocer called Williams’ claims “unfounded” and denied that there were any rats at the LaSalle store.
Carly Spross, spokesperson for the store, noted there were signs of mouse droppings in the loading dock area and along the chip and snacks aisle.
After being made aware of those sightings, they immediately sent for their pest control company, which thoroughly cleaned the area, and even re-arranged the store so perishables were not stored in the same location.
“We do take customer concerns seriously,” she said in a recent phone interview in which she explained that a walkthrough of the facility with vice president Grant McLoughlin – the request made by Williams – was unprecedented.
The LaSalle Fresh Grocer, which opened in 2009 to much fanfare and a $4 million state Fresh Food Financing Initiative grant, failed an inspection with citations of mouse droppings in late June. When health inspectors returned in late July, mouse droppings were found again. The most recent health inspection, which was conducted to follow-up Williams’ complaint, is not yet available for public release.
The owner of the LaSalle Fresh Grocer is Patrick Burns, the Chelten Plaza developer who runs Pulaski Partners; Shawn Rinnier, the son of Burns’ former business partner, is the former manager of the 56th and Chestnut Fresh Grocer.
Rinnier left the company last fall, now runs the Wayne Avenue Sav-A-Lot, and will take over the Chelten Plaza store when it’s built. Rinnier could not be reached for comment.
The LaSalle store has also been cited for sub-standard food safety conditions, and other Fresh Grocer locations have had similar problems.
Last February, the 40th and Walnut streets location was temporarily shut down by court order. In August 2009, health inspections revealed sightings of German cockroaches and a mouse infestation. Currently, the University City Fresh Grocer is in compliance.
Fresh Grocer said it hired a third-party contractor to conduct random inspections to ensure full compliance and employees receive extensive food-safety and store-cleanliness training.
However, two of the five Fresh Grocer locations in the city are officially out of compliance with various health codes.
The Fresh Grocer located at 54th Street and Chester Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia has been out of compliance since December. Its most recent inspection report had more than 12 violations, many of them repeat offenses.
Some repeat violations were corrected on site, such as mold and algae growing on the walls in the vegetable and produce section. Others – like fish, eggs, milk and cheese being held at the wrong temperatures – were repeat violations. To date, they have been cited for 22 violations altogether.
Fresh Grocer maintains that the violations were immediately addressed and that they expect to pass future health inspections.
The 56th and Chestnut streets store had racked up 14 health-code violations in the past two years. That includes flies crawling on food equipment and uncovered food items in the deli and meat displays. Prepared foods were also cited for being held at temperatures that increase the risk of food-borne illnesses.
Since the most recent store inspection was made in August, the health department has listed this store as “out-of-compliance.” The most recent inspection at this store has been completed but is not considered public record until 30 days have passed.
“Our recent [Board of Health] inspection at this location disappointingly highlighted several deficient maintenance and facility issues that have since been aggressively attacked and addressed,” Spross said.
Violations only tell part of the story
Health department spokesperson Jeff Moran says that individual violations simply can’t be evaluated at face value.
“If mouse droppings are found in the basement where there is no food storage, it is a very different violation than a rodent infestation in the kitchen area,” he said.
In reference to an E. Coli complaint, Moran said it is unlikely that there was an outbreak there because every complaint prompts an inspection.
Overall, Moran said keeping establishments up to health codes require “vigilance” and that inspection reports are snapshots in time.
What does it mean for Chelten and Pulaski
The Germantown Fresh Grocer, which closed suddenly this Spring and remains at the heart of a neighborhood struggle between a developer who wants to open a new Sav-A-Lot in its stead and neighbors who want a more-upscale grocery, had a string of violations.
It was inspected in October 2010 after confirmed case of E. Coli from someone who reported eating seafood at the grocery store. However, inspectors did not find a direct link. Mouse droppings were also found.
The second inspection for the Germantown Fresh Grocer was to be conducted in early March 2011, but by then, the store had closed. Fresh Grocer maintains that the Germantown store was closed for economic reasons.
Laverene Williams, who went to last month’s Chelten Plaza Zoning Board hearing, remains insulted. If Fresh Grocer doesn’t make an effort to apologize in a meaningful way, she plans on organizing a boycott of the LaSalle store.
She now shops at Produce Junction.