Shortly before the outbreak of Covid-19, Harry Thompson spoke to Lewisham landlord, Jason Rogers, about what it’s really like trying to get a top hygiene rating.
Above the din of south London, the tranquil community of Telegraph Hill looks north across the city. South London’s answer to Primrose Hill, the houses surrounding the park have the feeling of a community that knows it’s on to a good thing. At its centre is Telegraph Hill park, an exposed peak offering a rare opportunity for a deep breath and an expansive view.
Two-thirds down the Hill towards Old Kent Road is the Telegraph at the Earl of Derby, an old but proud pub where, before lockdown began, locals returning from work would mix with students from nearby Goldsmiths college in the evenings. It is, as any pub goer would agree, the quintessential London “proper local”.
Jason Rogers, 34, took over as manager of the Telegraph around 10 months ago. When he started, it had a Food Standards Agency hygiene rating of one. Now the publican of over 10 years has helped turn it around, proudly displaying a four in the window.
As he takes a seat he begins: “No one in their right mind would even put a three or lower in the window. It’s important, it’s a diligence thing.”
The trouble is, he warns, is that a rating can go from a five to a one in a blink of an eye. “If you had a structural problem like a bit of floor that was really bad or excessive mouse droppings that would sink you down to a one, even if everything else was really good.”
Crossing a threshold in any category on the inspector’s sheet drops an establishment’s overall score down to one, regardless of the strength of the other categories, so a single oversight can be all it takes.
“We got a four, not a five because the seals around the sink were a little bit old. It’s really minor and four is really good. Five is impeccable but really hard to achieve in an old building.”
He appears a little frustrated saying this, if not bitter – but who wouldn’t be when you live and breathe for the building you work downstairs and sleep upstairs in.
He says that just before he joined, but after the one-star inspection, the owners put in a new kitchen and reorganised the way things are done, from cleaning rotas to document checks sheets, to try and overhaul the bad rating. Investing time and money it was out with the old and in with new, in a substantial effort to improve standards and turn the Telegraph’s hygiene rating around.
He indicates getting a good rating requires more than a quick scrub – it needs hard work, time, and in the Telegraph’s case, a cash sum.
“If your score is low then the outcome can only be negative. If it’s high it’s not a draw in, it’s just not off putting.”
The pressure then, from a business sense isn’t a need to stand out, quite the opposite. What matters is ensuing that you slide under the radar, not being labelled as somewhere known for poor hygiene.
Talking about his newly acquired four star rating he says: “I’m proud to stick the sticker up. It’s a really important thing – its standards – safety and quality should be worn on your sleeve.”
But despite the long period of time the Telegraph spent with a One-star rating, Jason thinks it should be mandatory to show your score in the window, regardless of the number. He gives off the feeling that to insiders in the food and catering industry, hygiene standards are taken seriously, a hall mark of professionalism rather than a hoop-jumping chore.
He says he thinks the system is largely fair, but as he says this a slight strain spreads across his face, he’s being polite.
After some gentle probing he admits the inspectors themselves play a part in businesses’ success in the rating process, telling stories from when he was part of a catering outfit at festivals: “Not all inspectors are the same – some were overly harsh, and would judge from afar. Some of our equipment would look older than other people’s and they would go in on us, only to find nothing actually wrong.”
Naturally, older kit has had more time to accumulate germs, but the outcome is that newer-looking setups might be subject to less scrutiny.
“The depth that an officer goes into is the same as any authoritarian figure; they’re all reasonably pleasant, but some can be harsher than others and the character of the inspector can come into play.”
He says that a result has the potential to be different on a different day with a different inspector, stressing the level of judgement involved in the process: “When the guy came round to do our place you could see straight away he was glancing around, saw that a few immediate things were spotless and from then there wasn’t much point in him getting on his hands and knees and looking as hard as he might do if the place was in a bad state.”
Preparation is crucial. Being able to hand over a completed and signed-off binder logging everything from cleaning schedules to risk assessments is vital. This is one of the main things Jason made sure was top-notch when his latest inspection took place.
But he says there is luck involved too. Jason admits that the difference between a great and terrible score can be decided by whether or not you’ve just done a deep clean or endured a stressful and chaotic service.
Upon leaving, the outside the Telegraph looked peaceful, but behind the door Jason was likely already back at work, cleaning and preparing for another day of service. Even the smallest eateries have people struggling to meet the standards of the FSA, but for Jason, it’s worth it.
This is day one of our series on food hygiene. Check out the rest of the series here #FoodForThought