You’re making drinks for that table of five in the corner booth and all of a sudden a man with a clipboard and three thermometers sticking out of his shirt pocket strolls behind the bar and starts taking notes.

Who is this person – and where does he get off coming behind my bar? Aaaahhhh…it’s the Bar Health Inspector making his quarterly visit. I hope you’re prepared.

First of all, if the Health inspector is behind your bar – it’s probably too late to make any major changes. That’s why training, the “clean as you go” mentality, and regular cleaning schedules are so important in restaurants and bars.

Secondly, notify the bar manager immediately! The health inspector’s first stop may or may not be behind the bar, so the manager may not be aware that they’re even in the building. They’re sneaky.

Let’s take a look at why Bar Health Inspectors are showing up in the first place, and how you as a bartender can help the bar pass the inspection with flying colors.

My Personal Experience With Bar Health Inspectors

I have worked at many different types of restaurants and bars throughout my bartending and restaurant management career. I have yet to encounter a health inspector like those depicted in the movies.

You know, the shady city health inspector who extorts the local “Mom and Pop” type bar for some extra cash – or he’ll fail them on the bar health inspection and close their doors.

Or, how about the precinct homicide detective’s threatening to shut down the local bodega because of health code violations – if they don’t answer their questions. Nope, I’ve never seen anything like that.

I have, however, seen bar health inspectors come in and do their thing in pretty much every bar I have ever worked. On a consistent basis.

No exceptions, all of the health inspectors I have encountered are extremely professional and proficient. Nice people, and if you ask them – they’ll provide you with some extra tips on staying within the law and local health codes.

If I could just get them to quit looking at my ice scoop and liquor dispensing gun rubber holder….

Why Does a Bar Need a Health Inspector?

Basically, the Bar Health Inspector’s main role is to prevent Food Borne Illness. Customers and employees, equally, need to be protected from unsanitary and/or unsafe conditions.

Bar health code violations are serious business. Non-compliance with the local laws and health codes may result in a lower rating – or possible suspension of a food and/or liquor license.

I don’t know of any bar and restaurant owners who would like to see a “C” rating posted near the front door. Personally, if I see a “C” rating (even a “B”), at a restaurant or bar I am visiting – I leave. Nope. No foodborne illness for me!

Local laws will usually dictate when and how often the Health Inspector shows up. When they do, go with the flow – answer any questions they may have and make any suggested changes. Never argue!

Most health inspections behind the bar are only about 10 – 15 minutes. If that. Some inspectors whisk through their checklists rapidly and are out of you way quickly. Some like to take their time.

I’m not going to go into any detail here on how the different States regulate their bar health inspections. For further reading, I have used the State of Iowa’s Department of Inspections and Appeals as an example.

Health Inspector Taking Notes

I highly suggest checking out that link and getting a really good idea of how states regulate their restaurant and bar health inspections. Most states will have some sort of Health Department website.

The health inspector will most likely have a bar health inspection checklist. They’ll have one for the kitchen too, of course, and probably an overall general checklist.

Let’s discuss some of the basics, and then I’ll alert to you what most Bar Health Inspectors look for behind the bar. This list is not all-inclusive, of course. I just want to give you a general idea here – and how serious health safety is.

Most Important Items the Bar Health Inspector is Looking For

A bar health inspector’s clipboard list is probably many pages long. Yes, some things are more important than others. Below are ten of the most important items they’re looking at:

  • They observe whether employees are washing their hands.
  • Where is the food being prepared?
  • Where did the bar owner buy his food?
  • Proper temperature of food and beverages
  • Proper food storage (Thawing, temperature, cross-contamination)
  • Coolers/steam tables, etc., at proper temperature
  • Thermometers calibrated (Coolers, meat, etc.)
  • Kitchen Dishwashers and glasswashers at proper temperature and using the proper amount of detergent/sanitizer
  • Proper ventilation (The kitchen “Hood” system)
  • Food beverage utensils clean and sanitized

Employee hand-washing in bars and restaurants is a huge issue. Sinks with hot and cold running water must be made available to all employees. Soap better be available.

Marking expiration dates, rotating raw food items, wrapping meats – everything is checked. The inspector may even check invoices to see where the food and beverages are purchased.

Coolers are a biggie. All temperatures are checked. Walk-in coolers and freezers, cook’s line coolers, iced food items within arm reach of the cooks – you get the picture.

And don’t even get me started on clean and sanitary glassware. You better know how to wash and sanitize bar glasses correctly. The Health Inspector will inspect your sinks, detergent and sanitizer levels, and water temperature. Count on it.

The health inspector will look at not only the kitchen area where food is prepared – but also the area behind the bar where the bartender mixes juices, cuts fruit, and stores juice’s.

General Items Health Inspectors Look For:

The bar owner and management is responsible for the below items. For owners that take sanitation and cleanliness seriously, it’s fairly easy to stay up-to-date and adhere to all health codes.

  • Proper Licensing of the bar/restaurant
  • Floors/Walls clean
  • Food Handler Cards, if required for employees, on file in the office
  • Alcohol Awareness Training (if required). Yes, this is a health issue!
  • Health “Grade” posted in window on premises
  • Separate break area for employees to eat (not in the kitchen!)
  • Hand washing signs. Hot water always available
  • Smoking laws and rules observed
  • Sinks/mops/all cleaning equipment in good shape and properly stored
  • No rodent infestation

The Bar Owner is responsible for most of the above items; however, employees must be trained in the proper procedures for using all equipment as well as food and beverage products in a safe manner.

A word about Alcohol Awareness Training. An intoxicated bar customer vomits all over the bar. What do you do? If this isn’t a health safety issue – I don’t know what one is. This is where alcohol awareness training comes in.

If required, the bar owner must have a copy of each employees’ Food Handler’s Card. I suspect that “Food Handling Training” is going to become mandatory across the nation sometime in the near future. I’m all for it.

Bartender Specific Sanitation Items

Bartenders are not immune to health inspections. The bar health inspector is going to take a very good look behind the bar.

What should the bartender do when the health inspector enters the bartender’s work area? Nothing. Be polite, and answer any questions they may have.

Stay out of their way. They will stay out of your way.

And, by the way, unnoticed by you, they may be observing your “moves.” Are you washing your hands? Picking up glasses by the rim? Serving food and clearing dirty dishes? Cleaning the bar top regularly – with a clean towel?

main violations health inspector’s are looking for

  • Proper back-bar beer cooler temperatures. They’ll be looking at cleanliness while taking the temperature.
  • 3-Sink glass washing system using proper detergent/sanitizer, proper temperature, etc.
  • Glassware rubber matting is clean
  • Ice Bin/Ice Scoop
  • Are bar towels clean?
  • Liquor/soda dispensers are clean
  • Bartenders washing hands consistently
  • Where is clean glassware stored? If overhead, you can bet they’ll be looking closely
  • Dirty glass/plate storage
  • Draft beer keg room clean and sanitary
  • Garnish trays clean
  • All fruits and garnishes properly stored
  • They may ask for your knife and cutting board
  • Cleaning supplies stored separately from food and beverage items

It’s all about temperature control when it comes to perishable food and beverage items. There’s a very good reason why the health inspector has a number of temperature gauges readily at hand.

Bartenders Stainless Steel Ice Scoop

Bottled beer and wine coolers, the walk-in beer keg cooler, fresh juice and garnish storage coolers – all will be examined and checked for proper temperature.

I don’t know why, but the bartender’s ice scoop seems to be a top priority with most bar health inspectors. Mostly, it’s where the scoop is stored.

Ice scoops cannot be stored in the ice! There is still some controversy over this, as most bars will have some sort of slot next to the ice bin where the scoop is stored. How sanitary is this slot?

And, there better not be any standing water in the bartender’s ice bin. I’ve seen health inspectors totally freak out over this. And, in my opinion, probably the worst health violation ever!

They may ask to see the location where you store fruit. And your cutting board and knife. They’ll look at the garnish tray.

They WILL test your 3-sink glass washing system and any automatic glasswashers behind the bar. They must have the proper temperature, detergent, and sanitizer. They will observe you washing glasses.

Where are you putting the washed glasses? Are they air-dried or are you drying them with a bar towel?

Are you serving food? Where are the dirty dishes stored? Where are the fresh condiments? All of these things and areas may be inspected.

The inspector will spend some time in the beer cooler. Does it reek of yeast? Beer on the floor and walls? Mold? Temperature OK? Other food and beverage items stored here?

Beer lines will probably be inspected. This is why most bars have an outside vendor come in and clean them periodically. Beer lines can be a bacteria playground.

What about bar towels? Are they clean? Are you rinsing them out regularly – in a regular sink and NOT in the 3-sink glass washing system?

What about handling money? The POS system? Yeah, I know – bartenders don’t have time to wash their hands each and every time after handling money and tapping those keys. You might want to make an extra effort while the bar health inspector is lurking about!

Remember that the bar is no different than the kitchen. The bar health inspector might be spending a bit more time in the kitchen – but that doesn’t mean that all areas of the bar and restaurant aren’t equally important.

Bar Health Inspector’s Conclusion

Most bar owners will treat a visit from the Bar Health Inspector as pretty serious stuff. The owner will just stay out of the way and let them do their job. Besides, it’s too late to make any changes.

Continue to perform your bartending duties as you normally would. Don’t worry about it – you have thirsty customers to attend to and the bar manager will inform you soon enough of any violations.

If you’re following along in the Basic Bartending Course:

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