The power of social media broadsided a north Spokane sushi restaurant this week after a volunteer dishwasher posted videos of cooks preparing meals on a dirty floor, leaving raw food out at room temperature and using the same cutting board for everything from fish to vegetables.
The Spokane Regional Health District received numerous complaints, mostly stemming from people who had viewed the videos of food preparation inside QQ Sushi & Kitchen at 1902 W. Francis Ave., which closed Sunday as soon as people began responding to the videos posted on Facebook.
Inspectors arrived at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at the now-closed restaurant and were informed by owner Bao Zhang that he had fired two employees, said Kelli Hawkins, health district spokeswoman.
“The owner had already taken steps to throw away a lot of the questionable food items before we got there,” Hawkins said. “The owner is following up with us regarding some of the items we discussed based on what was observed on the videos.”
Zhang did not deny that it was his restaurant or employees in the video, Hawkins said. Zhang, who obtained his current business license for QQ Sushi in 2014, could not immediately be reached for comment. But his attorney, Daniel B. Johnson, said Zhang “is cleaning the place and getting it squared away.”
Johnson said he, like hundreds of QQ Sushi customers, viewed the videos taken by 27-year-old Elijah Osborn that show employees mixing raw meat and eggs into a bowl on the floor that is later pushed under a counter.
The video also shows raw fish in a sink next to, and resting on, the counter next to other food preparation. In another image, Osborn showed what he said was raw tuna sitting at room temperature inside a plastic dishwashing bin that had only been rinsed out.
In another short clip, Osborn showed two men cutting small chunks of meat. Some of the meat was on a tray on the floor, which one of the men at one point stepped on, and another piece of meat that had fallen onto the floor. “And the pieces that hit the floor, go back in the pile, no rinse no nothing,” he wrote on the video post.
Reached by telephone, Osborn said he was not an employee of the restaurant. He said he recently was asked by a friend’s girlfriend if he could help out the restaurant with dishwashing in exchange for free sushi and beer.
Osborn was raised in California and moved here two years ago to pursue a career as a utility lineman. But he said he has about 10 years of experience washing dishes, waiting tables and even working for year as a cook in a sushi restaurant in Chico, California.
He broke his leg in September and said he had free time to spare as he recovered. He said he agreed to help out at QQ Sushi during parts of five days starting Jan. 29.
“I was just there to help out a friend,” Osborn said. “I just walked in. Nobody spoke English. They were all speaking Chinese. We didn’t do much communicating. The dish pit was full of dishes, so I went straight to work.”
The first problem he noticed was a cook preparing what appeared to be chow mein. The cook dropped a long spoon onto the floor.
“I went to grab it and wash it. He blew me off and threw it back into the food without hesitation,” Osborn said. “He dinged the bell and the server took that right out. That happened all the time.”
At one point, Osborn said he took his concerns to one of the servers in the front who spoke English. He said the employees in the back would communicate with servers using a transcription application on their cellphones.
“I asked him, ‘Do you see how dirty it is back here?’ He said, ‘It’s like the best sushi in town,’ ” Osborn said of the server’s response. “He was like, ‘Yeah. Whatever. We have all of our regulars for a reason.’ I feel so bad for the customers.”
Based on his concerns, Osborn said he started posting the videos on Snapchat so that his friends would know what was happening. He said he never could have imagined that his videos would prompt local TV stations to seek him out for interviews.
“I didn’t know this was going to blow up like that,” he said. “I don’t have any regrets. With all the experience I have … it’s like the natural thing to say, ‘This is wrong.’ I have nothing to gain. It was the right thing to do for everybody.”
Hawkins, the health district spokeswoman, said the complaints stemming from Osborn’s videos were classified as what’s called a “critical” or “red category” violation that prompted inspectors to be on site within five business days.
“We are still in the process of investigating,” she said. “They were not open, so they were not doing any food handling for us to observe.”
Still, the investigators explained what they expected from the staff regarding safe food preparation “based on what was observed on the video,” Hawkins said. “They are going to follow up with us on additional things they will do before they open to verify the food handling is occurring the way we want.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.