Oak Bluffs health agent boots diners at Thai restaurant
Last Wednesday, Oak Bluffs health agent Shirley Fauteux walked into the popular Bangkok Cuisine Thai Restaurant on Upper Circuit Ave. at the height of the lunch hour rush and ordered the confused employees to close the doors and stop serving.
Ms. Fauteux then posted a sign reading: "Closed by order of the Board of Health" on the restaurant's front door.
Ms. Fauteux took the action despite the lack of any prior written warnings to the owner, who was not at the restaurant when the health inspector arrived. Ms. Fauteux said her actions were justified because there was not a certified food handler, meaning an employee who had passed a food safety course, on the premises. Ms. Fauteux also said that her visit and the closing of the restaurant should not have been a surprise. She had, in her written records, documented several prior violations of the certified food handler rule and discussed the problem with the owner.
Pissamai Laothong, manager of Bangkok Cuisine, said they want to comply with all town regulations so the business can stay up and running throughout the winter. Photos by Aubrey Gibavic
Ms. Fauteux, health agent for the last 14 years, said this is the first time she has ever closed a restaurant for this violation.
Pissamai Laothong, manager of the restaurant, told The Times this week that the owner is the restaurant's only certified food handler, and he was off-Island that day picking up food supplies. Ms. Laothong said she plans to take the test this month, in order to become certified herself.
Chip Mitchell, who was halfway through his meal Wednesday afternoon referred to the incident as "horrific." In a letter to the editor published in this morning's Times, Mr. Mitchell, an Oak Bluffs resident, said what he witnessed was an abuse of authority by a town official that embarrassed and humiliated the owner's sister in front of staff and customers, for a technical infraction (see Letters, page 16).
Mr. Mitchell said the staff was visibly confused about what was happening. He said the restaurant was about three-quarters full at the time. "Regardless of whether she felt justified in doing what she did, it was the way she did it. It could have been done with a lot more grace," he said.
Code of conduct
Bangkok Cuisine in Oak Bluffs is the fourth eatery opened in Southeastern Massachusetts by husband and wife team Sam Sangworn and Tanaporn Boonsynha Wong. The couple also own restaurants in Falmouth, Plymouth, and Dennis.
The Oak Bluffs location opened in August. Pissamai Laothong came to the United States four years ago. She lived on Cape Cod with her brother, Mr. Sangworn, until just a few months ago, when she moved to the Island to manage the Oak Bluffs location.
"We tried to do everything right with the town," she said in limited English. Even though she hasn't yet mastered the language, Ms. Laothong said she can read and understand spoken English, and has reviewed the "Serve Safe" certification book numerous times. "We test each other," she said of the various employees, who were rushing around the 14-table restaurant Tuesday, preparing to open for lunch.
The interior of Bangkok Cuisine on Upper Circuit Ave. in Oak Bluffs.
Bangkok Cuisine is a small, sparsely decorated space with checkered curtains on the windows and light pouring in from three sides. A mother and daughter eating lunch Tuesday said they used to make special trips to the Falmouth location, and were thrilled when the Island location opened this summer. The preparation of the meals is consistent, a rarity on the Island, they said.
When Ms. Fauteux came into the restaurant last Wednesday, Ms. Laothong said at first she did not understand why she was ordered to close. She said the health agent had come in three times before, but had never left an official warning or violation notice.
She said Ms. Fauteux had told them they had to use thermometers in all the food storage areas, install new shelving in the basement, and that all kitchen personnel must wear hats. She said they complied with all the regulations, "even though she never came back to see," Ms. Laothong said of the health agent.
When Ms. Fauteux came into the restaurant on Oct. 25, Ms. Laothong told her that Mr. Sangworn was off-Island and that he would return later that night. "I know she has to do her job, but he cannot be here all the time," she said.
Mr. Sangworn could not be reached for comment.
Since the owner is currently the only employee that is also a certified food handler, he is expected to be there whenever the restaurant is open for business. Bangkok Cuisine opens at 11 am every day but Sunday, when it opens at 4 pm. Closing is at 10 pm each night.
When Ms. Fauteux hung the closed sign on the door, members of the restaurant staff said they saw many people come up to the door, only to read that the board of health had shut the business.
"We want our customers to know that we are clean, that is not why we were closed," Ms. Laothong said. She said business has been unusually slow since the closure last Wednesday.
This week, Ms. Fauteux told The Times she took action only after she had delivered repeated verbal warnings. Asked to provide written documentation of her earlier warnings, Ms. Fauteux faxed one page she said were her notes concerning the restaurant and an official inspection form with various dates.
The notes provided by Ms. Fauteux were contained on one sheet of plain paper with no letterhead. The handwritten entries were dated Sept. 6, Sept. 8, Oct. 16, Oct. 19, and Oct. 25.
According to her notes, Ms. Fauteux first visited the restaurant for a preliminary inspection on Sept. 6. Oak Bluffs allows restaurants to open without a permit, so that the health agent can inspect and observe their food preparation practices in action.
She performed the full inspection two days later. The inspection form listed four infractions, one of which was a missing certified food handler. All the violations were soon remedied, said Ms. Fauteux, except for the presence of a certified food handler.
She said she warned Mr. Sangworn that she would return on Oct. 16 to again confirm that a certified person was present. When she arrived that day, a certified handler was not there, and she said she asked the owner to come into her office on Oct. 19 to discuss the policy.
On the single page of notes, Ms. Fauteux indicates that the restaurant owner came to her office on that date, and they spoke about the infraction.
Ms. Fauteux said she returned again to the restaurant last Wednesday, Oct. 25, and found that Mr. Sangworn was off-Island. "He thinks that because he's certified, he can still go off the Island or shopping and not be there," Mss. Fauteux said. "But it's very clear, all the establishments have to have a certified food handler there," she said, adding that restaurants do slip up from time to time regarding this particular regulation, and she has never closed an establishment for this violation.
"I gave these people five chances," Ms. Fauteux said, rebutting the charge that she has not closed other establishments for the same violation. "If I went to another place, and they didn't have a food handler, no, I wouldn't close them on their first offense."
In the act
Ms. Fauteux said that when she went to the restaurant at 12:30 pm on Oct. 25, there were four adults and one child dining. She said she told the staff that they must stop serving food immediately. She said this week that she did not think she was being tyrannical or making a scene.
Ms. Fauteux defended her arrival during the lunch hour. "That's when you see how they're performing their work. How they're performing their cooking procedures. How they're handling the food," she said. "I'm not going to go in at three o'clock in the afternoon when there isn't anybody there, or ten o'clock in the morning. I'm going to go at a time when the helpers are doing their job."
Pressed as to why it was necessary to check in at that time when it was not a preparation violation that was of concern, Ms. Fauteux said, "I happened to be out doing soil tests, I had a minute, I knew they had to be done, and I pulled in. I document the time when I get there, but I don't intentionally say, oh, I'm going to go at 12:30."
Ms. Fauteux told Ms. Laothong they must stop serving meals, and ordered them to temporarily post the "closed" sign on the door while she returned to the board of health office to retrieve the official sign.
"I can make that decision as long as I let them [the board of health] know within 24 hours," Ms. Fauteux said of her authority to order Bangkok Cuisine closed at once "I was on my way down there to placard the building, and I called them all and told them. I left messages with one and spoke to two."
Before reopening the restaurant, Ms. Fauteux asked that Mr. Sangworn call her when he returned to the Island later that day. She then called the restaurant to confirm that he was in the building. Bangkok Cuisine reopened for dinner.
"It's my job to protect the people who eat there," Ms. Fauteux said of the closure.