A travel center located about 22 miles west of Laramie on Interstate 80 was one of 22 establishments in Albany County listed as “out of compliance” during this year’s round of routine health inspections, according to the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
The truck stop, Akal Travel Center, had a total of 34 violations. Albany Lodge, Sushi Boat and Wycolo lodge had the next highest number of violations, with eight each.
The name of the travel center may sound familiar; it was recently featured on CBS News for its popular, authentic Indian food.
The segment showed both locals and travelers alike enjoying the food, taking viewers on an inside look of the cooking process. Considering travelers can get hot dogs or sandwiches at any other truck stop along I-80, the travel center gives travelers the chance to experience another culture, too.
“This smells like we’re in Mumbai, not in Laramie,” CBS Anchor Jim Axelrod said in the segment. “Just a few feet away from the motor oil, the military hats, the trucker shirts, are storage shelves full of turmeric, coriander and maybe other spices you haven’t heard of.”
While the food is popular with everyone, the cooking, storage and cleaning methods aren’t popular with WDA.
Fifteen of the truck stop’s violations were considered noncritical, while 19 were considered critical, which are a bigger risk to human health.
“During an inspection — it’s a snapshot of how the establishment works, how things go,” said Derek Grant, public information officer for the WDA. “All of the things that are critical violations are expected to be fixed; all of the things that are noncritical violations are expected to be fixed.”
Critical violations have a 10-day deadline to be fixed, while noncritical violations have a 45-day deadline.
Many of the travel center’s violations were solved in subsequent follow-up inspections. For example, after being cited for improperly reheating chicken wings during the first inspection Nov. 4 — a critical violation — the restaurant had it remediated by correctly reheating them at the Nov. 7 inspection.
Another example: the truck stop had moved dry food stored too close to items like Axe body spray or brake pad cleaner — considered a critical violation — before the first follow-up inspection.
Other critical violations, however, continue to be an issue. Six violations are labeled on the Dec. 9 inspection report as repeat violations.
Hand washing-related violations were a repeated critical violation; during each inspection, sanitarians noticed actions like employees taking out the trash or handling money without washing their hands properly before touching food.
Knives, cooking areas and food preparation surfaces were cited for being unclean during the various inspections as well.
“Food contact surfaces were not cleaned to sight or touch — cutting board in the kitchen was visibly dirty,” the Dec. 9 inspection reads.
The truck stop also had rodent droppings under beverage counters during two November inspections; they were not found in the December inspection.
Ready-to-eat food stored for more than 24 hours has strict labeling and timing requirements from the WDA that the truck stop failed to follow during the inspections as well.
The restaurant voluntarily threw out between five and 10 gallons of ready-to-eat food during the Nov. 4, Nov. 7, and Nov. 20 inspections because the dishes were not properly labeled and dated, which is considered a critical violation.
On the Dec. 9 inspection, the facility voluntarily discarded “foods found in reach that were well over the seven-day allotment for safe food.”
These procedures may all be health code requirements, but they can make it difficult for the restaurant to continue to make the authentic dishes that have made the rural truck stop such a national destination.
For example, many of the dishes require marinating meat, something health codes don’t give a lot of room to do. Codes require food to be frozen, refrigerated or cooked above 135 degrees to ensure bacteria doesn’t grow.
Additionally, Mintu Pandher, the truck stop owner, told the Boomerang the building is over 56 years old, and the its condition has been “overwhelming, at this point, from the last five years.”
“The whole kitchen was a conversion of a shut-down Taco Bell to a grill and then to an Indian restaurant,” he explained. “All equipment is replaced and brand new. … This facility is designed to take about 150 customers a day, but it is serving over 500 customers a day.”
The building’s backflow preventer for the carbonizer to the self-serve soda machine was noted on the Nov. 4, Nov. 20 and Dec. 9 inspections as in need of replacement or inspection by a technician. The backflow prevents contamination of water lines.
Pandher said the new building will help alleviate many of the issues.
“We are in the process of rebuilding the whole truck stop beginning next spring,” he said. “It will be built to today’s specs and standard, most of the cosmetic violations will automatically go away — a newer and bigger drain system, automatic dishwashers, bigger and better cold and dry storage facility, bigger floor plan and bigger ventilation system is also a part of the plan.”
Education is another component; at least nine of the violations relate to lack of knowledge, ranging from how hot to reheat something to the Center for Disease Control’s strict rules on proper ways to cool a dish or store food.
Grant said the WDA’s goal is not to immediately punish those out of compliance but rather teach the restaurants why the codes are in place.
“One of our main goals as the Department of Agriculture is to really educate as much as we can during the inspection,” he told the Boomerang. “Our goal is to educate and then regulate.”
During the Nov. 7 inspection, the sanitarian educated the truck stop staff on how to properly mix sanitizing liquid and gave them a new thermometer for deli cooler in the kitchen as well.
“The USDA is arranging some onsite training classes next year at our request,” Pandher said.
Beyond education about health codes, the truck stop’s employees and the health inspectors can also have a difficult time communicating effectively, Pandher said, and finding new employees can be hard given the truck stop’s remote location.
“Over 75% of our employees are a very vulnerable group of individuals who made it to the United States via the (U.S. Department of State’s) refugee rehabilitation program,” Pandher said. “We are working tirelessly to train them and stay compliant at the same time.”
Additionally, Pandher said he wants to ensure his employees, many of whom are running to the U.S. from situations of extreme violence, have a good experience working in America.
“It becomes a challenge for us to properly train them and not cross the fine line of making them homeless and jobless again,” he said.
Pandher said he has received no complaints about foodborne illness from the restaurant; the USDA conducted the first inspection in November as part of the department’s routine inspection schedule.
Full health inspection reports for every restaurant in Albany County are available to the public at http://agriculture.wy.gov/component/content/article/45-chs/413-chs-inspections-reports.