Bruce McLean is a feared man. When he shows up at the door of a restaurant, decked out in cowboy boots and a bolo tie, he'll smile and ask to come in and wash his hands. The restaurant owners had better hope their sink is working, or McLean—the toughest health inspector in King County—won't hesitate to shut them down.
Since 2005, McLean—a 54-year-old Seattle native—has closed down a dozen restaurants. In the past two years, McLean has temporarily pulled the licenses from lunch spots and coffee shops—like Perugia Coffee on Queen Anne and Sunny Teriyaki in Fremont—as enthusiastically as he has upscale restaurants where entrées go for upward of $20, like the Mojito Cafe and the Magnolia Pandasia. Infractions included improper food storage, dirty facilities, or improper food handling. Only one King County health inspector closed more businesses than McLean last year—and McLean has already closed one restaurant in 2008. That restaurant, Bento Sushi in Ballard, was shut down on March 10 for improper food storage, plumbing problems, and improperly sanitized prep areas for raw fish.
On a recent rainy April afternoon, I accompanied McLean on an inspection of Azteca Restaurant on Northwest Market Street in Ballard—one of the 300 to 400 restaurants he inspects every year. After walking back into the kitchen and washing his hands—something he says he does at least 10 times a day—McLean gets to work. He pulls out his digital thermometer, meticulously probing the food inside one of the restaurant's industrial refrigerators. He isn't happy with what he finds.
The food is several degrees warmer than it should be, creating the potential for hazardous bacterial growth. McLean asks the manager how long the food has been stored in the fridge. More than a day, the manager responds, so McLean asks him to start tossing things out. Huge steel troughs of rice, pans of chiles rellenos, and 10-pound bags of cheese go straight into the trash. And McLean is only 15 minutes into his visit. By the time he's done, McLean has found a broken refrigerator seal, a malfunctioning dishwasher, and a missing thermometer, but few critical violations. Still, he's very firm with the manager. "This will get their attention," he says.
McLean has been in the public-health business a long time. He spent four years in the Peace Corps, working on public sanitation in Malawi and Liberia, before taking a job as a public-health consultant to developing nations. He's spent the last 18 years of his career at the King County Public Health department, 9 of those as an inspector. In that time, McLean has left his mark on the city, as just about anyone who's been on the receiving end of one of his inspections will tell you.
Business owners and kitchen workers say they find his interpretations of health guidelines frustrating and his inspections overly aggressive. One employee at a restaurant in Ballard—the area to which McLean is assigned—says the restaurant had to stop smoking its own salmon after McLean made a fuss about their outdoor smoker, which lacked the necessary hand-washing sink and permits.
"There was something people always feared about Bruce," a worker at a different restaurant says. "He's very strict and very thorough." One kitchen-equipment salesman—who says he's seen a spike in business in the area McLean monitors—says he's heard about McLean's tough inspections. "He was on [restaurant owners] like stink on shit."
Most food-industry workers I talked to asked that their names be withheld to avoid drawing unwanted attention to themselves, but David Miller, kitchen manager of the Jolly Roger Taproom, was willing to go on the record. "I put [McLean] down as one of those guys who's out to save the world," Miller says. "He's doing his part by being a health inspector." Miller says he's battled with McLean over various rules and regulations, most notably over the preparation of ceviche, seafood marinated in citrus to "cook" the fish.
"[McLean said I] could only use frozen [fish] to make ceviche," Miller says. He claims that while the frozen-fish rule makes sense for sushi—the health department requires all sushi to be previously frozen to keep it parasite-free—he doesn't believe the same rules apply to ceviche.
Elizabeth Jones, who managed a popular Queen Anne breakfast spot, says that while she had a perfectly good working relationship with McLean, he did have different expectations than other inspectors. "We upgraded our cooling system and probably spent $15,000 on things other inspectors wouldn't have required us to have," Jones says. Still, Jones says she doesn't hold anything against McLean. "It's kind of a thankless job," she says. "Nobody's ever excited to see the health inspector."
While McLean has closed more restaurants than other inspectors, his supervisor, Todd Yerkes, also say he's responsible for more administrative hearings, which allow restaurant owners to make a case to avoid closure. "He doesn't want to necessarily close [restaurants], but help them understand [what's happening]," Yerkes says. "I think Bruce goes out of his way to try to avoid closures."
McLean, unsurprisingly, agrees. "I look at my time [in restaurants] as a learning opportunity for them. If I see something I think they're going to benefit from me writing it down, I'm going to go over it with them," he says. "[I'm] there about two hours a year, maybe less."
McLean says he understands why people resent his presence. "I'm terrified of a cop behind me on the road, even if I'm driving just fine," he says. "Unfortunately, it's the way we naturally respond to enforcement."