By 11am on Tuesday, Inspector Ron Loo was already out checking food trucks at Kakaako's Taco Tuesdays. His surprise visit, with clipboard and pocket thermometer, made stress levels skyrocket. "You need to keep this chicken cooler," Loo told one vendor. The second vendor he checked got into a bit of trouble: "He was informed of three violations and what needs to be done to correct it," said Loo. Another vendor, Extreme Taco's owner Youssef Dakroub, got a double-whammy, when Loo and a military inspector picked his truck for inspection. Food trucks are a booming business in Hawaii. In 2008, there were 151 permitted food trucks. In 2011, there were 365. Add that, to the nearly 10,000 other food establishments on the islands, according to the Department of Health. "My inspectors also do swimming pools, mortuaries, tattoos, barbers, beauty massage," said environmental Health Manager Peter Oshiro, who is having to make do with only 9 full-time inspectors. Federal standards show they're each supposed to handle about 150 cases annually. Inspectors such as Loo average 640. That lack of manpower has led to some major problems. "We haven't been able to keep up on them all the time," said Oshiro. In 2007, multiple outbreaks of E.Coli sent business into a tailspin for Sekiya's in Kaimuki. In 2010, four people were hospitalized after an E.Coli out break at Peppa's Korean BBQ on South King Street. "The sad part is these people have gone out of business," said Oshiro. And the Norovirus spelled big trouble for Cholo's Mexican restaurant in April. Dozens of people, including employees, got sick. It created quite a media frenzy a couple of years ago when someone videotaped rats running around Kekaulike Market, but what happened next was a lesson in saving face. "All it takes are one or two bad publicity cases and everybody loses money," said Oshiro. "They came to us for help," said former Chinese Chamber of Commerce President Dennis Hwang. He said the chamber set up education programs to teach business owners how to trap rats and clean up to keep rodents and diseases at bay. "They're gonna have to win back the trust of the public and I think they're doing that," he said. It helped he said, but it's been a struggle. Budget cuts decimated the state's vector control branch. The practice of eradicating rats in sewers before they reach the streets stopped. Back in Kakaako, the crowds were growing, but Loo was finding other food truck owners who needed more education. "You gotta bury it in ice," he told one vendor. "The hand washing, you gotta fix it," he told another. He said, with their workload, each establishment gets inspected about once every two years, meaning, besides getting the initial permit, many food trucks have yet to be inspected. "It's difficult to track, it's very difficult to track," he said. Oshiro said the state has finally agreed to provide more funding for the department. By year's end, he said they should be up to 18 inspectors. The department is also planning to post all inspections on the web. And, Oshiro is working on a new placard-based permit process. "Stressful day for you!" KITV4's Lara Yamada asked Dakroub. "Yep, but it's good. We passed. Thank God!" he replied. Dakroub said he's fine with the rules, and is doing a good job of following them, but he had a warning for anyone thinking of starting up: get ready for one tough job. "Would you recommend opening a food truck to other people?" asked Yamada. "No. No. It's a full time job. It's full-time," he said. If vendors correct the violations within 48 hours, before a follow up, they don't have to pay. Oshiro said most vendors do pass. But he said, once a vendor moves or changes their number, it's tough to track them down.
Food Trucks Stress Already Overworked Inspectors
Health Department Finds Violations, Infrequent InspectionsUPDATED 1:48 AM HST Jan 19, 2012