Why a Cockroach Infestation Isn’t Enough to Get Dirty Frank’s Shut Down

I was disgusted by what I encountered at the Philly bar. But the health department let them remain open after a recent inspection — and that might just be good science.

Behind the Brown Door: Dirty Frank's and its hungry family of cockroaches. (Photo by Claire Hoffman)

Behind the Brown Door: Dirty Frank’s and its hungry family of cockroaches. (Photo by Claire Hoffman)

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped into Dirty Frank’s, the cash-only, windowless watering hole at the corner of 13th and Pine. Inside, I found all the things you’d expect to find in a bar like Dirty Frank’s: a diverse bunch downing cheap drinks. One of those play-anything jukeboxes. Weird artwork. A flatscreen on the wall showing CNN.

But then there were also the roaches.

As I sat at the bar sipping on a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, a roach popped up in front of me on the tattered, sticky bar top. And it didn’t take me long to spot another. And another.

In less than ten minutes, I saw three roaches crawling around me. And so I hightailed it out of there, as any right-thinking human being would do.

Later that day, I sent a message to an acquaintance who works at Dirty Frank’s. At that time, I wasn’t writing anything about the roach problem. I just wanted to vent. So I sent a note explaining what I had experienced.

“Hahaha,” was the reply. “It’s not called Clean Frank’s … that’s for sure.”

Cute. They should put that on their business cards.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only person to witness the cockroaches at Dirty Frank’s in recent weeks. On the afternoon of January 25th, health department inspector Gillian Clarke — she’s the one who shut down Opa on January 18th and kept it shut down for nearly two weeks for a variety of problems, including mice and flies — paid a visit to Dirty Frank’s.

In what was Dirty Frank’s first inspection since 2015, Clarke documented a variety of health-code violations. In addition to the “pink slime” noted inside the ice machine and the “black residue” in that same machine as well as in the nozzle of the soda gun, there were roaches. And not “just” three. (Dirty Frank’s has not responded to requests for comment on this story.)

“German roaches of all life stages observed harboring between crevices and cracks throughout bar counter and in wooden shelving storing glasses,” wrote Clarke in her official report. “Roaches observed crawling on floor in bar area.”

Of course, cockroaches aren’t just annoying, disgusting, and unsightly: According to the World Health Organization, cockroaches might spread dysentery, cholera, leprosy, plague, typhoid fever, and viral disease. They can carry E. coli and salmonella. Cockroaches and their droppings can trigger asthma attacks.

And German cockroaches — the ones holed up inside Dirty Frank’s — can be particularly problematic and difficult to eradicate, according to pest-control experts. Scientists say they are among the quickest of the various cockroach types to reproduce.

So why in the hell would the health department allow Dirty Frank’s to remain open when there were so many cockroaches there, on so many surfaces and in an area where glasses are stored?

The answer lies in the department’s policies regarding health inspections — and, perhaps, in good science.

dirty-franks-cockroaches-health-department

As a health department spokesperson told us, the inspection form is divided into two main checklists: “FOODBORNE ILLNESS RISK FACTORS AND PUBLIC HEALTH INTERVENTIONS” up top and “GOOD RETAIL PRACTICES” on the bottom. (A portion of Dirty Frank’s report is seen above.)

The inspector goes through each section and notes whether the establishment is in compliance or out of compliance. If out, the establishment is given a chance to correct the problem immediately, and if the attempt is successful, the inspector checks off the “COS” box, which means that the issue was corrected on site.

Uncorrected failures in the top section can result in an immediate shutdown. Problems in the bottom section — not maintaining those good retail practices — do not get the door locked. And guess where the cockroaches landed?

That’s right. According to the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, keeping your bar free of “roaches of all life stages” among glasses and “crawling around” is merely a good retail practice. And when Opa was shut down by the department two weeks ago, it wasn’t really for the mouse droppings, flies or dead mice observed by the inspector — it was for things like food being stored improperly.

Clearly, this is the wrong way to do things. It doesn’t make the least bit of sense. Right?

Actually, it makes perfect sense on a scientific level, says Rutgers University professor Donald Schaffner, a food safety expert.

“I share your disgust,” Schaffner told me on Wednesday morning by phone. “But what the health department is doing is actually science-based, even though it doesn’t make sense to many people.”

It’s true, admits Schaffner, that cockroaches are vectors for disease, meaning they can carry and transmit nasty things to humans and other living things. If you take a cockroach into a lab and examine it, you might find “all kinds of nasty bacteria,” as Schaffner puts it. Cockroaches have been found to harbor some 50 pathogens, according to the New York Times.

“But generally speaking, if you go to the epidemiology literature,” adds Schaffner, referring to actual scientific studies that have examined how diseases and illnesses have been spread, not just how they might be spread, “what you don’t find are cockroaches at the center of significant outbreaks.”

So a bunch of cockroaches at Dirty Frank’s can’t technically make me sick?

“I’m not saying it can’t happen,” he continues. “But when you examine why a person got sick at a restaurant, you’re much more likely to find that the chef had a boil on his hand and it burst into food with bacteria and the food was temperature-abused and then you ate it and got salmonella. Or the lettuce came from a field with improperly composted manure and you get E. coli.”

And, says Schaffner, the same holds true for the mice and flies that were found at Opa.

“The yuck factor is high,” he observes. “But the risk is low.”

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