Why Cleveland.com's Restaurant Health Code Violation Series is Incomplete Service Journalism

Without violation details, the information is sorta useless

click to enlarge What goes on in Cleveland's kitchens? Don't look to Cleveland.com for answers - Timur Saglambilek/Pexels
What goes on in Cleveland's kitchens? Don't look to Cleveland.com for answers
Cleveland.com this month rolled out the beginning of a series on health code violations at restaurants and stores. It is bread-and-butter public service journalism practiced by newspapers going back decades, one which Cleveland.com ditched during the pandemic but has brought back, although without the fine-tuning that a project such as this deserves.

Publicly labeling a restaurant as dirty is bound to hurt not only egos but bottom lines, especially since, by Cleveland.com's editor Chris Quinn own admission, the tallying of violations reaches a huge audience.

"These are some of our most popular pieces of content," he said, discussing the article on a recent episode of Cleveland.com's podcast Today in Ohio. "Everybody wants to know. Is my restaurant filthy? Yeah."

But are they?

Some were, as Scene found when it dug through the inspection records, hit with violations for storing food at unsafe temperatures, failures to abide by sanitization processes, roaches discovered in basements, and not labeling products with preparation/expiration dates.

But, to read Cleveland.com's story, one wouldn't know whether the critical and non-critical violations issued during health inspections were for playing hacky sack with raw chicken cutlets before they hit the grill or for some violations that are deemed "critical" but to restaurant-goers might seem super minor. For instance, having any critical violation is itself an additional critical violation. So is not having a sign posted alerting employees to avoid coming into work if they are sick. So is having a hot water faucet that dispenses water at a temperature even a degree less than standards.

But none of this is available to readers, who are simply told the name of the restaurant, the inspection date(s), the number of violations, and the number of those which were critical. The article even lacks any link or explanation on where to go to examine the violations for yourself, which makes Cleveland.com's Laura Johnston's suggestion on the podcast to, "check out what the violations are for. And if you’re comfortable, we’re not saying that these are death traps," unhelpful advice.

And Cleveland.com knows, with empirical evidence, that the average reader won't take that extra step, because they used to include links, and users ignored them.

"We did that a couple of years, but people did not use the links," Quinn told Scene. "Including them was tedious, so without utility, we stopped."

Which makes the idea of throwing a big, scary number next to a restaurant's name without any further specificity all the more illogical. Lacking any clarity, they are saying these places are death traps.

Which they aren't. As Cleveland Department of Public Health director Dave Margolius noted yesterday "If a restaurant is licensed by our team, that means the Food Service Operator is doing things right. Cleveland.com has not reached out to us for comment on these pieces."

(To review violations for yourself, head to the Cleveland Department of Public Health's website, where restaurant facility inspections are searchable by keyword.)

By way of comparison, the Akron Beacon Journal likewise publishes health code violations for restaurants, but includes the full report and all pertinent details for readers.

Six Shooter Coffee owners Peter Brown and Sarah Stocum had another beef with the rankings, which listed their new Old Brooklyn shop as having the 23rd-most violations in all of Cleveland with 50.

The problem: They occurred before they even opened their doors, the two said in a social media post this week.

A note has since been added to the article noting the correction with regard to Six Shooter, though it is still listed as a top overall offender.

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Vince Grzegorek

Vince Grzegorek has been with Scene since 2007 and editor-in-chief since 2012. He previously worked at Discount Drug Mart and Texas Roadhouse.
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