On August 22, the Chester County Health Department shut down the Split Rail Tavern. The shocking report included 31 separate violations and a revelation of a cockroach infestation. Leading many to wonder, what happened? I sat down with SRT Owner Paul McCreavy and General Manager Lea Fredrichs to discuss the lead-up to the closure and, more importantly, what they were doing to clean up. What emerged was a cautionary tale of distraction, complacency, and the consequences of things outside of your control.
“Our attention was on Gay Street,” said Paul, who admitted his focus had been elsewhere this summer. He like other owners of non-Gay Street establishments is not a fan of the Borough’s decision to continue to close Gay Street to traffic on weekends. “This closure is killing us,” he said. “It’s like everyone’s having a party and we’re not invited.”
However, while leadership was exploring alternate revenue sources things were slipping in the kitchen and an ongoing problem with a neighbor was worsening.
They first noticed “little problems” years ago but were not sure of the cause until an employee took up residence in the neighboring apartments. The building was infested with cockroaches. The building has four upstairs apartments. According to Paul, they’ve approached the landlord on numerous occasions but he had been reluctant to do anything.
Instead, SRT upped their Green Pest visits to every Tuesday, and for a long time the situation seemed to be under control. Then three weekends ago they received a complaint. The weekend after that, several more. Unsure what to do about the worsening situation, Paul went to the Chester County Health Department seeking assistance with the landlord next door.
“I have a problem with my neighbor,” he told me he told the CCHD. That was on Monday. On Tuesday, a Chester County Health Inspector arrived at the restaurant.
“I thanked her for coming,” Lea told me thinking the health department was visiting about the neighbors. Housing violations, unfortunately, fall under the Borough of West Chester’s Housing Division. The CCHD was there for their annual review of the restaurant.
By the time the inspection was complete, a cease and desist order would be taped to the door and the path forward would become much clearer. The entire restaurant was scrubbed, caulked, and sealed. Fluorescent lighting was added behind the bar to make it easier to see what corners may have been missed. A second employee began the food safety certification process. (Paul is also certified but he was not onsite at the time of the inspection.) And the head chef was fired.
“The violations are on us,” Paul said of the many food safety basics that were neglected per the report. (Although, he does believe some of the violations are a little nit-picky or the result of poor timing – oil and water spray bottles not labeled, a pot resting on the ground for moments while things were shuffled in the cramped kitchen.)
Then, perhaps, most importantly, they approached the neighbor again.
“His attitude has completely changed,” said Paul. The owner has agreed to allow Split Rail to pay for weekly treatments of his building. The treatments will occur on Tuesdays at the same time as those already scheduled at SRT. That along with the sealing and constant vigilance should keep the bugs at bay. A shopvac sat on the counter when I arrived. Paul is now using it to make regular sweeps of the restaurant’s nooks and crannies sucking up any lingering, tiny brown egg sacks. “We got an education on roaches,” he said.
The leadership also knows in the end responsibility lies with them. “It’s still a health risk. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is,” said Lea.
SRT has reopened but the future of the bar that celebrated its 8-year anniversary in July is tenuous. Revenues were already down for the summer; now they are operating with a limited menu and reduced hours as they try to manage the expenses of the upgrades, the ongoing pest treatments, and the cost to replace all the food.
Standing with Paul in the empty, albeit, gleaming bar, there is a weight in the air. Whether the once $3 million a year bar will return to its former glory or even make it to next week is yet to be seen.
“I have to find the money to open full-time,” said Paul. “That’s what we are fighting now – the money.”
Update: SRT announced yesterday they are now open with a full menu.
Split Rail Tavern, 15 N. Walnut Street, out, 2 violations, including a bar dish machine not dispensing adequate levels of chlorine and a few remaining cockroaches spotted. Note the follow-up inspection was conducted on Aug. 31, two days before my meeting with the leadership team. I did not personally note any bugs while I was there.
Rize Pizza, 124 E. Market St, out, 9 violations, including pizza sauce not cooled properly, pizza being left out to be served without documentation of when it was made, a wash sink without soap and a can-opener, and a deli-slicer in need of cleaning.
Sabatino’s Mobile, 901 Boot Road, out, 9 violations including a bunch of things stored directly on the floor that shouldn’t be, interior prep and areas around the grill in need of cleaning.
CVS Pharmacy, 1450 Pottstown Pike, out, 6 violations. I am not sure what kind of food prep they are doing in this CVS Pharmacy but I would probably avoid it. I would also avoid the restrooms. Violations included holes in the walls of the men’s restroom as well as a list of cleaning tasks for both the men’s and women’s restrooms such as the fans, vents, floors, lower walls, and toilets. There was also evidence of rodent activity.
You can find all the reports here. Search by location for more detail.
Originally published, Sept. 8, 2023
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