When James Sheh bought 848 Washington St. from the owner of the shuttered Great Oriental restaurant in 2010, he planned to make minor structural changes to the practically blacklisted business in serious disrepair, but it needed to be brought up to code with the health department.
And when the Department of Public Health learned of the ownership change for what would become San Sun restaurant, it immediately swooped in.
Lisa O’Malley, a principal environmental inspector with the department’s food safety program, explained to Sheh that he needed to completely remodel the basement and the main kitchen so he could have a food preparation area downstairs and an assembly and cook line on the floor above. Taking that advice, Sheh spent $80,000 covering the kitchen and dining area with stainless steel from floor to ceiling to keep rodents out.
“I had no idea,” Sheh, 46, said in Cantonese about steps to come up to code. “But after we met all the requirements, the health department treated us very well and we have not had problems since.”
O’Malley and several other inspectors also helped train Sheh’s employees on storing food in separate sections and proper hand-washing and food-handling techniques to avoid cross-contamination.
“In China, of course we didn’t know this and did not have this training — everything is done whichever way,” restaurant chef Hong Le Yu, 62, said in Cantonese. “Of course it’s cleaner and better now.”
Since opening in June 2011, the restaurant has seen a steady stream of customers who appreciate its cleanliness, Sheh said, and the health department even brings other struggling restaurant owners to see what a model transformation looks like. By O’Malley’s book, San Sun is just one of dozens of success stories in the department’s Compliance Education Program for restaurants citywide that previously failed to meet health code requirements. The program started in the late 1990s when O’Malley first inspected restaurants in Chinatown and decided it would be more constructive to guide the businesses through compliance rather than flagging problems and just expecting them to be fixed. Working with the owners, O’Malley was able to slowly but surely bring the businesses up to code.
Inspectors use their discretion in identifying restaurants whose practices need much improvement and conduct on-site, hands-on training teaching workers to chop vegetables and raw meat on separate boards, use a thermometer to take food temperature readings, prepare dishwashing machines, and designate a person to replace paper towels and soap.
“We’re regulators, but we’re much more than that,” O’Malley said. “When you educate someone, you empower them. And from that I think you build a lot of mutual trust and get a lot done. I work with a talented group of people that went on this journey with me in this community.”
If a restaurant continually cannot maintain safe practices after one or two on-site trainings, its health permit is revoked. However, O’Malley said, “we very rarely do that.”
Virtually every restaurant in Chinatown is now in compliance, O’Malley said, and she has implemented the approach in the North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Marina because it has proved to be “a sufficient model for really helping businesses in the long run.”
With the promotion of many inspectors, however, the program is currently only half-staffed. Ten more inspectors should be hired by the end of the year, bringing the program back up to full staffing and enabling O’Malley to expand it to the Tenderloin, a neighborhood with restaurants that she considers “no more or less” challenging than neighborhoods where she’s already had success.
“Everyone is on top of everyone, we have older structures,” she said about The City. “So I don’t see it different in the Mission or Sunset or Tenderloin or Chinatown.”