The food service workers lathered their hands with a special fluid and washed them. Then they held their hands under a black light and saw a glowing residue. “I still have it,” a woman exclaimed. “Oh my gosh!”
Thorough hand-washing in the kitchen will help keep diners from getting sick. It’s one of the lessons these Somali speakers learned one recent evening in a class that an employee in every Minnesota restaurant must take, but until now was unavailable in their native tongue.
Food safety is becoming a universal language in Minneapolis, which subsidized the class as part of a much broader effort to ensure limited-English speakers know how to avoid inadvertently sickening their customers — or getting buried in violations.
From Mexican taquerias on Lake Street to cafes in East African malls, language barriers are falling between food inspectors and the business owners with whom they work.
The city now employs health inspectors speaking seven languages, likely more than any other food safety operation in the metro area. It has released detailed kitchen procedure videos in five languages and has begun hosting meetings specifically with Somali and Latino business owners.
“The food business is the business of the American dream,” said Dan Huff, the city’s director of environmental health. “So if you’re an immigrant, it’s a great business to get started in.”
The multilingual outreach is part of a larger effort by the city’s health department to reform its food inspection program, after being slapped with an “unacceptable” rating from the state health department in 2010. Though not as bad as St. Paul, where the state took over control in 2013, Huff said the audit was a wake-up call for the city.
It isn’t known whether restaurants run by limited-English speakers receive more critical violations, since the ethnicity of a restaurant’s food does not necessarily reflect who is working in the kitchen. But there is evidence that extra education reduces violations, said Huff, who believes the multilingual effort is one reason the department was able to slash the number of risky violations found in city restaurants last year.
“We want to make sure that training is as effective as possible. And if there’s a language barrier then that’s not effective,” Huff said. “So that’s why we really tried to bridge that gap.”
At La Alborada Market, a Lake Street restaurant and grocery store, inspections used to be a somewhat vexing affair. “They said, ‘This is fine, this is bad.’ But they did not explain why it was bad,” owner Orlando Cruz said in Spanish.
There were cultural gaps, too. Inspectors used to insist that Cruz refrigerate all his mole sauce, for example, but certain types of dry mole loses its flavor and consistency with refrigeration. The Hispanic inspectors now know the difference.
“Now everyone understands the city rules perfectly. As a community we can show off our food, our seasonings,” Cruz said. “We can grow [the business] more quickly.”
Cesia Baires opened Abi’s Café on Lake Street and Bloomington Avenue about a year ago, serving Salvadoran food. Baires speaks fluent English, but the owners of the previous restaurant in the space did not.
“They would be scared every time they would hear ‘inspection,’ ” Baires said. She told them they had nothing to fear if they were following the rules. “But then again they didn’t have all the resources or all the information for them to know what it is that they had to do right.”
Now her inspector is an occasional customer, she said, and he can communicate with her Spanish-speaking employees even when she is not there.
Web of rules
Running a kitchen in compliance with the food code can be complicated. Among the several hundred rules, key ones include date-marking potentially hazardous refrigerated foods to use within seven days, maintaining those foods above 140 degrees when hot, and then cooling them to at least 41 degrees within four hours.
At the evening class in food preparation safety, the English words “bacteria” and “violation” consistently crept up in Farhiya Farah’s Somali language lecture, as pictures of salad, eggs, pudding and meatballs flashed across the screen. The students are training to become certified food managers, a requirement for Minnesota restaurants.
Similar classes are taught in English and occasionally Spanish. A former Minneapolis food inspector, Farah trained 77 people last year and has attracted interest from restaurant workers as far away as Fargo and St. Cloud.
Ethnic restaurants are particularly important for Somali communities, she said, since many do not eat pork and are limited to eating halal meat. “They’re really locked out of a lot of mainstream restaurants,” Farah said.
The food safety rules can be a big shift from cooking norms in their home country. “All of a sudden you’re in a culture where there’s leftovers,” Farah said. “There’s no poor neighbors to give the leftover food, or poor relatives, or even … the chickens outside and the cows and the cattle. So it’s a different world.”
Farah tries to make the class visual and hands-on. She cooks a pot of rice and takes its temperature over the course of the class, and received permission to read the final exam questions aloud to the test-takers. She’s working to develop a visual-heavy app that would substitute for a textbook.
Abdulkadir Awale, owner of Karmel Coffee, took an English version of the class in the past and tried to impart key points to his employees — several of whom later took Farah’s course. “She was much better than me,” Awale said.
Dan McElroy, head of Hospitality Minnesota, said Minneapolis has done more than any other jurisdiction locally to expand the languages of its food-safety operation. “The city of Minneapolis has made it a priority,” McElroy said, adding that the city likely has the largest ethnic restaurant community in Minnesota.
Minneapolis now has inspectors who speak Spanish, Chinese, Hmong, Thai, Lao and Somali. The Minnesota Department of Health, which inspects St. Paul restaurants, said it has Hmong and Spanish speakers on its inspection staff.