The good news is that coffee chains are basically safe places to eat and drink without a lot of health-inspection issues. Public Health — Seattle & King County has found no establishment with the word "coffee" in its title that made anyone sick in more than two decades.
Whatever Carly Simon says, it’s not the clouds in your coffee that will get you — or even any insects or rodents nearby.
It’s the unwashed hands and too-warm refrigerators.
Just ask Jeff Babcock, owner of Zoka Coffee, which has the worst health-inspection record among 36 coffee-shop chains in King County since 2006, according to a Seattle Times analysis of inspection records.
The chief offenses among his three popular shops (the fourth Zoka is owned by Amazon.com and has a perfect inspection record): inadequate hand-washing facilities, which Babcock said meant not enough soap and towels; food kept at the wrong temperatures; and workers who couldn’t readily show inspectors their health-department certification cards.
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The good news is that these coffee chains are basically safe places to eat and drink without a lot of health-inspection issues. The types of violations at Zoka are fairly typical of the group, and while they can lead to food-borne illnesses, Public Health — Seattle & King County has found no establishment with the word “coffee” in its title that made anyone sick in more than two decades.
Chains with the worst scores also took the Times’ analysis seriously, with many making changes when they learned they did not score well among their peers. Others had already made improvements after receiving their health inspections.
When Babcock learned about Zoka’s track record from the newspaper, he started posting workers’ certification cards in his coffee shops, fired the company that refilled soap containers and stocked paper towels, and bought sushi cases to keep sandwiches colder.
“Our policy in the past when food wasn’t cold enough was, I called the refrigerator guy and had him come out again for $500,” Babcock said. “Most of the time he’d say, ‘It’s as good as it’s going to get.’ “
Rather than spending $20,000 each to replace two old refrigerators, Babcock risked getting bad inspections — until he learned about his ranking, upon which he called a consultant who told him to buy smaller, less expensive sushi cases.
“I now have the coldest cases in any coffeehouse in Seattle, bar none,” Babcock said.
Small coffee-shop operators do not always have the same handle on their health-inspection records — or the same resources to fix problems — as big chains like Starbucks.
“It’s a resource issue,” said Mansour Samadpour, president of IEH Laboratories in Bothell and the consultant Babcock called.
“Companies that get large enough are sophisticated enough to know they’re being measured in some given areas, and they design programs and do measurement on a daily basis,” he said.
Starbucks workers measure the temperature inside a sandwich multiple times a day and frequently recalibrate their thermometers. Baristas who do not scrub their hands for 10 to 15 seconds will hear about it from their managers.
The same rules do not apply to all of Starbucks’ 295 King County locations, because some are owned and operated by other companies such as the grocery stores where they’re located. But Starbucks keeps tabs on those corporate partners, and its overall average score of 3.2 — in a system where zero is perfect — makes it the second-best-scoring coffee chain.
Starbucks budgets millions of dollars for training and hires a third-party auditor to visit each store randomly at least twice a year checking on food safety and other quality issues, said Clarice Turner, a senior vice president of U.S. retail operations.
Other chains are fastidious as well, but their scores are not as high.
Tully’s Coffee, King County’s second-largest chain with 58 locations, has more resources than the average chain and, a company official said, strict rules about hand-washing and checking temperatures. Yet its average score is 8.1 points, more than double Starbucks’.
That resulted from issues with refilling paper towels or soap dispensers and things like not removing an empty milk carton from a sink.
“We do have some dated equipment,” said Tully’s spokeswoman Diane Geurts. “When cold-holding temperatures are cited (by a health inspector), we fix it within 24 hours. We also have funds in place to ensure we can maintain and replace any equipment.”
Coffee-shop operators also said the timing of inspections can hurt them. Sometimes an inspector arrives just as the hot water stops working in a bathroom — or when a shop is short-staffed and a series of small problems add up to a bad visit.
Before the health department started emailing reports, baristas who did not want to get in trouble would sometimes toss the reports in the trash, said Morgan Harris, owner of five King County drive-through shops called Mercurys Coffee.
He also has been dinged for not having paper towels at a sink — a red violation worth 10 points.
Red violations are considered more serious than blue ones. For example, an inspector who sees a worker not wash her hands after using the restroom would add a 15-point red violation. Evidence of insects or rodents is five points and a less-serious blue violation.
A score of about 35 points in red violations is considered a serious problem requiring a return visit.
“Typically, the things that are more likely to cause foodborne illness are the red violations,” said Hilary Karasz, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
They include not washing hands, cross-contamination from uncooked juices, and too-low or too-high cooking temperatures.
Brian Murphy, CEO of Caffe Vita, blamed many of the chain’s violations on one of its six King County shops. Vita made changes at the store, which has since had perfect scores.
The chain goes beyond health-department requirements, Murphy said, by doing things such as not putting lids on to-go cups.
“Our baristas’ hands never touch lids,” he said. “As a consumer, I’m kind of disgusted by that practice when a barista puts your lid on your cup.”
To the coffee chains’ credit, their results easily beat restaurants in general. The average score for the chains analyzed since early 2006 was 4.7, compared with an overall restaurant average of 11.2.
It all comes down to risk.
Most coffee shops don’t offer complex menus with meats and other items that can heighten the risk of food-borne illnesses. Some sell just scones and cookies.
The biggest contributors to restaurant food safety, said Mark Rowe, food-protection program manager at Public Health — Seattle & King County, are “good, involved management” along with “good policies and practices, training your staff to them and checking to make sure they’re following them.”
“It starts from the top down,” agreed Karissa Bresheare, who owns 13 Gourmet Latte drive-through stands, including seven in King County with an average score of 3.4, making it the third-best scoring chain.
She gives baristas $25 when they are on duty during a health inspection that receives a perfect “zero” score. The barista’s manager also gets $25.
“It’s an incentive for the manager to harp on the barista to wash off the washcloths and rinse out the spoon water (where spoons sit between stirrings),” Bresheare said.
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AllisonSeattle.
Justin Mayo: 206-464-3669 or email@example.com.