Ceviche Tapas Bar and Restaurant is typically a big draw on Tuesday nights, when the menu offers dirt-cheap tapas.
But on the heels of a highly publicized temporary shutdown for state health code violations including nearly 30 cockroaches found in the kitchen and restaurant not many went through the 8-year-old eatery’s iron gates for happy hour. A couple hours later, though, there was a steady dinner crowd.
State health inspectors shut the restaurant down Monday after discovering bugs, food stored at hazardous temperatures and other violations.
Inspectors found more than 25 live roaches behind the cooks’ line above a water filter, another roach in a low-bow drawer and another on a wall behind a hand-wash sink next to the salad station. Two dead roaches were at the end of the cooks’ line.
“Potentially hazardous” foods, such as cooked pork, seafood and vegetables, were being stored at improper temperatures. Beef was being thawed in standing water, a soda-gun holster had accumulated slime at the upstairs bar, and utensils and equipment were not dried properly. Inspectors also noted other violations, including several related to employee hand-washing.
Because of the Spanish-style restaurant’s popularity and high-profile location in the historic Ponce de Leon hotel downtown, the closure drew extensive media coverage. After reopening this afternoon, managing partner Jim Snyder said although he is concerned about the bad publicity, he’s confident the Ceviche brand will bounce back quickly.
“We did a very, very rigorous check and found everything to be perfect,” he said. “We’re ready to put it behind us and move forward."
This week wasn’t the first time state inspectors have noted code violations at Ceviche’s St. Petersburg location. The restaurant had been flagged for follow-up inspections six times in recent years, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Monday’s shutdown resulted from the latest of those, which centered on food storage temperature. An inspector spotted the bugs and other issues while following up. A state report noted 15 violations of sanitation and safety laws - four classified as “high priority, four as “intermediate” and seven as “basic.”
State health inspectors cleared the restaurant for reopening after workers corrected the problems outlined in the report. Shortly after 4:30 p.m. today, an employee pushed open the restaurant’s gates.
“We passed our inspection with flying colors,” Snyder said to a cluster of news reporters gathered on the sidewalk out front.
Whether the public will give the restaurant a pass is uncertain.
Ceviche has long been a popular destination for downtown diners, as well as the late-night crowd, who gravitate toward its catacomb-like downstairs bar for sangria and Latin dancing and the restaurant for tapas and al fresco dining.
With other locations in Tampa, Clearwater, Sarasota, Orlando and Delray Beach, Ceviche was at the forefront of a crop of eateries and bars that helped reinvigorate downtown St. Petersburg over the past decade.
Nevertheless, some patrons say they’re reluctant to return so soon after the closure.
“It definitely makes you hesitant to rush back,” said Seminole resident Sharon Potts, who goes to Ceviche several times a year. “Especially with so many options downtown now.”
Those who have worked in the industry say it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to get cited, but to get shut down is another thing.
“An emergency closure is huge,” said JoEllen Schilke, former owner of the Globe Coffee Lounge downtown. “That’s pretty freakin’ bad because [inspectors] usually work with you on things.”
Bugs often arrive via the boxes in which restaurant supplies are shipped, and any Florida restaurant, no matter how spotless, will see one from time to time, Schilke said. In Ceviche’s case, a roach nest was found in an old electrical conduit and promptly cleared.
Like the airline industry, food safety laws are tight for obvious reasons, Bill Aittell, an instructor within the Pinellas Technical Education Centers’ commercial foods and culinary arts programs. An emergency shutdown or the public health hazard that could have ensued without one is rare.
“When they do happen, it’s a big deal,” he said. “Kind of like a plane crash.”
Ceviche quickly remedied the problems, but just how much the closure bruised its image remains to be seen, Aittell said.
“It’s not good news,” he said. “That’s going to hurt their reputation.”