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Thu, Sept. 19

Prescott Valley eateries earn Golden Plate honors

Hungry folks shouldn't be afraid to enter any Yavapai County restaurant or food service establishment whose doors are open. But the confidence level greatly increases for the 193 that go above and beyond the norm and have won Golden Plate awards for 2009. And two dozen of them are in the Tribune's readership area. (See sidebar.)

"The public really needs to understand that if there's an imminent health hazard or it's not safe to eat, we wouldn't allow them to be open," said Cecil Newell, environmental health unit manager for Yavapai County. "So even if it's not a Golden Plate winner, it doesn't mean these places are bad."

The Yavapai County's Environmental Health unit has been giving Golden Plate Awards for five years, and only 16 establishments have received the award five times. One - Panda Express - is in Prescott Valley.

"To earn it several years in a row means they're doing an outstanding job, staying right on top of food safety," Newell said. "They police themselves - with management and a system in place to do such."

To be eligible for the Golden Plate, an owner or operator must meet three criteria:

• Operate through the calendar year without a cited critical food handling violation;

• Have an approved and implemented food safety plan; and

• Have a person in charge with an accepted and current manager-level food safety certificate.

Newell said a critical violation is one that is more likely to cause a food-borne illness. This isn't based on cleanliness, per se, but could include improperly refrigerated holding areas where the temperature causes bacteria to grow, or something as simple as employees eating or drinking in the food handling area, or not washing their hands.

"It's a pretty good place to have no violations; it's really hard to do," Newell said.

"These are people who've gone above and beyond what's expected from them."

Granville Elementary School's kitchen manager Stacy Costanzi put it best.

"That's the way it's supposed to be. We have a lot of children to protect," Costanzi said.

That didn't stop her from being "shocked and impressed" when Granville Elementary recently received its third consecutive Golden Plate.

Her response to the award letter?

"Woo-hoo!" she said, laughing.

Costanzi said having a new school where everything started out clean is a big factor, but she credits "being really cautious in our kitchen - clean and up to temp." She also acknowledged the efforts of the other three on the kitchen staff anda custodian Chuck Baldwin, who keeps the dining area sparkling.

"It's all teamwork here," she said.

Panda Express general manager Tom Qu was happy, but not surprised, that his franchise has earned a Golden Plate each of the five years - the only Prescott Valley food establishment to do so.

"Panda has high standards," Qu said. "The corporate office hires (a service) to come in every three months. That pushes the manager to do a good job. To fail would be a big issue."

He said he thinks the main reason they've achieved the 5-year mark with no violations is that cleaning and safety awareness is an integral part of daily operations.

"We also have a very productive team led by our chef Sixto Perez who always leads our back of house group to do a thorough daily cleaning," Qu said.

Rusty's Gourmet Subs received its first Golden Plate.

Owner Rusty Mosher thinks there's no big secret to keeping a safe food business environment.

"I'm clean so I kind of pass it down to my guys," Mosher said.

He knows exactly what's expected because of the county's guidelines.

Newell said the county follows the Arizona Food Code adopted from the FDA in 2000. The state mandates that the county's field inspectors go twice each year to all food establishments.

"We pretty much meet that," Newell said, noting the county has eight inspectors covering four districts.

Also, he said, highly susceptible places such as hospitals and day care businesses, or those with a complex menu where they prepare food days in advance (a pot of beans, for example) get three visits annually.

He emphasized that the goal of the department is not to be a regulator, but rather to aid food establishment folks.

"Even though we are (a regulator), our goal is to work as a team to help them solve problems," Newell said. "We go in as a second set of eyes."

In fact, inspectors spend much of their time acting as consultants, a service the county provides free of charge because it's included in license fees.

Still, inspectors enjoy giving Golden Plate awards to the worthy.

"If they've gotten it, they deserve it," Newell said.

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