Two months and four hundred handwritten pages later…

Larry Shaffer, health inspector for the Clark County Combined health district, washes his hands before starting his inspection at Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. Clark County health inspections reveal some dire situations in the area’s commercial kitchens. Photo by Bill Lackey, used courtesy of the Springfield News-Sun.

Here’s my front-page story today on restaurant inspections. It was quite the ordeal. I got to draw on my previous experiences in the kitchen, and I had to keep editors abreast of the project throughout its two months of reporting.

I was asked to write a short piece on how it all came together, so I’ve pasted that after the jump.

To produce today’s story on the state of the county’s commercial kitchens, a News-Sun reporter summarized and cataloged about four hundred pages of reports — all handwritten on something similar to carbon paper and then scanned.

To top it off, at one visit to a particularly clean facility, the kitchen manager made the reporter wear a hair net.

In an early conversation with health district officials, it became clear there was no scientific way to filter the county’s inspection reports. But officials and reporters agreed that the county’s most serious violators were somewhere among those reports that were the longest.

The News-Sun eventually requested reports three pages and longer. Fifty-three of the 421 kitchens the health district inspects fell into this category. Those venues’ inspections over six months yielded 270 pages of reports.

A second request, looking into the history of a few key establishments and the county’s high schools, added another 135 pages.

Only a few venues made it into the story. We based our choices on cold mathematics: a combination of the number and severity of the violations.

The last step was to visit all the establishments we planned to write about. Were the violations listed in the reports still happening? If so, why? All but two of our visits were unanticipated. We asked to see their kitchens. Some didn’t let us; others were reluctant, so we didn’t press the issue.

And throughout the project, we spent several hours talking with local health inspectors and their supervisors, and reading the gargantuan Ohio Food Code.

The reporter still carries his hair net in his bag, just in case duty calls.

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