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Thomas' Buffet begs for 2nd chance

Some of Thomas’ Country Buffet servers have been working at the repurposed train depot for several years and they think of their customers as family, but the business is on the verge of closing down in the aftermath of a failed health inspection.

The southern-style buffet received a health score of 34 for numerous food safety and sanitary violations, but the manager who oversaw a string of mediocre health scores is no longer with the company, and the dedicated employees who remain said they were as appalled as customers when they found out the specifics.

“It was embarrassing, ridiculous. Everything they told us were stupid things, but some were repeat offenses. Who does that?” newly promoted manager Dana Dawkins said this week.

Dawkins said the former manager wasn’t transparent with the staff about the health inspections and was the only one who knew any of the safety standards, a fact that was sometimes complicated by a language barrier as she was Korean.

However, Dawkins, and three of the restaurant’s longest-tenured employees, servers Tiffany Qualls, Stephanie Ward and Jessica Pitts have spent the past three weeks getting up to speed on the rules and seeking out help from the health inspector, food vendors and even managers at several other area restaurants – a manager from another buffet did a walk-through with the girls to give them tips.

While everyone was kept in the dark before, now the entire staff is being asked to pitch in and make sure every standard is being followed.

The results have already been seen. The restaurant received a 99 on its re-inspection to allow it reopen – which isn’t uncommon as restaurants are on high alert – but it just received a 92 this week on a random inspection. The two items it got marked off were four-point violations for an employee storing his personal drink on top of food – the report didn’t specify – and unclean tea nozzles.

Dawkins said the staff has made great progress but knows it still has a lot to learn. They might not get the chance.

The restaurant may be closed within the next week or two if businesses continues at the trickle its been since the restaurant was closed.

Employees are asking for a second chance for the restaurant, even personally calling longtime customers and going to visit area churches and businesses offering an apology letter, coupons and talking about the changes, but response has been tepid.

Violations found during the failed inspection were in numerous areas and every stage of the process, from not storing foods properly on shelves or in the freezer, to not keeping foods warm enough on the buffet to not washing hands properly to – the biggest one for customers – not removing a dead rat from the trap that had killed it.

No two health violations are the same. For example, storing raw meat on the shelf above milk and onions – which Thomas’ did – is a nine-point violation, while pest problems are a three-point violation, though a restaurant canget dinged for multiple violations.

Dawkins said she was willing to be transparent about everything, and she even provided all of the violations the restaurant had received over the past few years – something she had compiled to get a handle on what had been happening the past.

Thomas’ received a score of 81 on Nov. 21, 2013 and a score of 72 on July 10, 2013. Dawkins said the fact the restaurant was shut down may be a blessing in disguise to force changes, if the restaurant can survive.
She and the girls admit the violations were bad, but they’ve already addressed them. Thomas’ is now using Bizzy Bee Exterminators for all of its services, with an emphasis on spraying the outside of the building, something previous companies apparently didn’t do. Dawkins said the advice she was given was to only use one company to make them accountable for the service they provide.

The restaurant is getting back to basics, using stickers with pictures of different food products in the storage areas to avoid those violations, and using clock stickers out on the buffet that tell workers what time foods need to be removed and thrown out – the limit under health rules is three hours.

Multiple employees are also carrying thermometers to constantly keep an eye on temperatures on the buffet – hot food has to be kept above 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sundays used to require six servers each serving between 80 to 120 people per five-hour shift. Now, only two servers are needed and they’re only handling 30 to 40 people per shift.

“If we don’t find a way to let everyone know how much work we’ve done… if they look, we didn’t have anything to do with the health score. We never lost points for anything we did. We’re busting our butts to do everything possible to let our customers know what we’ve done,” said Qualls, who has worked at Thomas’ for six years.
“Our relationship with the customers, it’s not just ‘What would you like to drink?’ There’s conversation that add to it and makes the experience better, which most restaurants don’t take the time to do,” said Ward, who has worked off an off at the restaurant for nearly a decade.

The girls talked about the customers they’ve seen pass over the years and how they would mourn along with the families.

The employees want to see the restaurant survive to preserve that environment. And while trust is best earned over time, employees know they don’t have it.

“We want them to know we have honestly fixed it, and it won’t happen again as long as we’re here. And (owner) Jin (Yoon) is much more educated himself now,” Qualls said. “We’ve done this all on our own time for no money. We want to do everything we can do.”