Thomas Litrenta, co-owner of Chef in the Black Bandana, makes pasta from scratch on June 30, 2023, in Oak Harbor. Litrenta and co-owner Crystal Madrigal are among dozens of Whidbey Island restaurateurs who complained to Island County about its food inspector’s alleged behavior. (Karina Andrew / Whidbey News-Times file)

Thomas Litrenta, co-owner of Chef in the Black Bandana, makes pasta from scratch on June 30, 2023, in Oak Harbor. Litrenta and co-owner Crystal Madrigal are among dozens of Whidbey Island restaurateurs who complained to Island County about its food inspector’s alleged behavior. (Karina Andrew / Whidbey News-Times file)

Island County suspends food inspections amid complaints

The decision came after about 30 restaurateurs complained about the food inspector. Inspections are expected to fully resume next week.

WHIDBEY ISLAND — Island County Public Health suspended its food inspection program on Feb. 8 after about 30 Whidbey Island restaurant owners complained about the food inspector, sharing stories of decisions they felt were unfair and financially catastrophic.

The group of food-related business owners met with Public Health Director Shawn Morris on Feb. 6 at the Useless Bay Golf & Country Club to discuss negative encounters they’d had with Todd Appel, who was hired as the county’s food inspector last summer.

Appel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Morris said neither he nor the environmental health manager were aware of most of the concerns raised. The department announced that it will work on improving the inspection process during the suspension period.

“For us, it’s not uncommon to take a pause,” Morris told The Daily Herald on Thursday.

He said essential inspections have continued since Feb. 8, and when the program fully resumes sometime next week, inspections will be scheduled rather than on the typical drop-in basis.

At the Feb. 6 meeting, many people were puzzled by Appel’s focus on sinks, with some suggesting he’s trying to be a building inspector as they recalled him not checking food temperatures.

Many of the business owners alleged they were told they had to remodel their kitchens. But remodeling a kitchen, they said, costs time and money as the establishment would need to stay closed until renovation is completed.

Some alleged they were immediately shut down or threatened to be shut down over the layout of a pre-approved kitchen or over plumbing matters.

In an email to the Whidbey News-Times, Morris said businesses are only shut down immediately if there is an imminent threat to public health. There are ways to work with businesses when it comes to sinks, he said, acknowledging that renovation can be expensive. He invited owners to reach out to the department if any concerns or questions arise.

Crystal Madrigal and Thomas Litrenta, who co-own the Chef in the Black Bandana, thought for some time that they were the only ones being affected by the food inspector’s alleged arbitrary and intimidating behavior.

In an interview on Jan. 26, Madrigal and Litrenta alleged they were shut down twice and believe it cost them about $40,000 — a significant amount, they said, especially for a small business that has been operating for less than a year.

In August, their food booth was shut down on the first day of the Coupeville Arts and Crafts Festival because the county, they said, lost their permit for the event.

Fast forward three months, Appel visited again while Madrigal and Litrenta were preparing to serve hundreds of Thanksgiving orders. According to the couple, Appel informed them that the water heater wasn’t big enough for the sink they were using at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds.

The Friday before the holiday, Chef in the Black Bandana received a cease and desist letter from Appel, explaining the owners weren’t allowed to operate in the kitchen until the Port of South Whidbey fixed the heater.

As a result, Chef in the Black Bandana canceled all orders and did not serve Christmas catering or its weekly meals at Dancing Fish Vineyards despite having, they said, approval from the state Department of Agriculture.

Jack Ng owns the China City restaurants in Freeland and Oak Harbor, in addition to Fisherman Jack’s and The Whiskey Muse on Everett’s waterfront. He is the man who planned the Feb. 6 meeting with Morris. In 2023, he said, Appel inspected one of his restaurants and threatened to shut it down over an additional sink he said needed to be there. Ng said he set up a meeting with the inspector to explain that he planned to remodel the kitchen two months later, but Appel threatened to shut down the business if the sink wasn’t installed by the following week.

According to business owners who spoke at the meeting and to the News-Times, Appel aggressively interrogated staff while the managers were gone, with an owner alleging he made their 16-year-old employee cry.

While there used to be a collaborative relationship with the previous food inspectors, as some business owners said, restaurateurs said they now live in fear that the appliances that had previously been approved will need to be changed immediately.

Natasha Rodriguez, who owns El Cazador in Oak Harbor, believes the county needs to better educate business owners on new regulations and give people time to make expensive and invasive corrections.

These grievances were also brought to the attention of the county commissioners.

After the testimony of two community members during the county commissioners’ Feb. 6 meeting, Commissioner Melanie Bacon said she wants to see a happy resolution to this problem.

In an interview, Commissioner Jill Johnson said communication with business owners needs to improve and that it’s not in the county’s culture to be heavy-handed.

“That’s not how we should be doing business,” she said.

At the meeting, Morris thanked everyone for speaking up and said he worries about potential impacts to the local economy. He said threats of closure won’t be allowed and that a business can’t be shut down without his signed approval.

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

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