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Press Box sports bar closes after health code violations; reopens after costly mitigation

University of Montana men’s basketball team celebrate their pairing with Michigan this spring at the Press Box. The business was forced to close in December after the Missoula City-County Health Department found a number of health code violations. The owners have since remedied the concerns, but said the limited closure from Dec. 4 through Dec. 9 hurt their bottom line. (Courtesy photo)

A Missoula sports bar opted to close earlier this month after the Missoula City-County Health Department found a number of code violations, though the business was permitted to reopen on a limited basis during the University of Montana football team’s home playoff game.

It was the biggest game of the year for the Griz, but the Press Box offered only a limited menu and bottled drinks following the inspection.

The health department issued a temporary permit for drinks only to Press Box co-owners John E. Sargent III and James Jones during FCS playoff weekend, using an off-site support kitchen.

“They did the one event with a support from a licensed kitchen and with limited service at the bar,” said Alisha Johnson, an environmental health specialist for the health department. “They still had some revenue, but no open food or open beverages.”

The owners have since remedied the health department’s list of concerns, but Jones said the limited closure from Dec. 4 through Dec. 9 hurt their bottom line.

The bar was limited to selling only bottled beer, which accounts for roughly 2% of the Press Box’s revenue, according to Jones.

“It cost us about $50,000 in revenue for that Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” he said, adding a separate estimate of $40,000 in required construction and improvements.

During that limited time span, Press Box staff was limited to only one bartender for each day shift and night shift. Jones worried about his 53 employees, who lacked work hours right before the holidays.

“We don’t have a vendetta against the health department, but just the way the timing went, I think it could’ve been handled differently,” Jones said. “We don’t know the fallout yet or if we’ve lost customers for life. But now it’s business as usual.”

By Dec. 20, the Press Box – fan, player and coaching headquarters for all Grizzly games in all sports – reopened with full services after the owners complied with a list of corrective actions, Johnson said.

Until management corrected the health concerns, the Press Box could sell bottled and canned beverages and packaged items only, which Johnson said “would not have required any dishwashing, but they were still (working) in a limited capacity.”

Upon inspection in early December, health inspector Michael Dorshorst found problems with cleaning, waste water on the floor, a faulty fresh water line, inadequate cleaning and sanitizing of dishes, and rodent droppings near back doors, Johnson said.

The kitchen lacked cross connections with the water system and Dorshorst detected a rupture and leaking of pipes. There were holes in the back doors and nearby signs of pest droppings.

During the temporary kitchen closure, Jones said the health department ordered his staff to throw away $9,000 worth of food during the inspection process.

To avoid turning away customers and regulars during the busy playoff week and subsequent Monday Night Football game on Dec. 9, Jones said he and Sargent bought pizzas from nearby Pizza Hut and tacos from Taco Bell to give away and to make up for the Press Box kitchen closure.

The findings prompted the health department to give the owners the option of “self-closing” until the health hazards were remedied, said Johnson.

“They fixed the pest issues,” she said, adding that the rodents were probably mice. “There were outer openings that allowed for pests that weren’t sealed. The inspector required holes fixed in the door so pests couldn’t come in.”

The back door to the kitchen is where food is delivered to the restaurant.

After the Dec. 4 closing, Johnson said it allowed the owners time to fix the problems, but Jones said he and Sargent needed more time – especially during one of two biggest Grizzly weekends of the year.

“The Health Department didn’t give us enough time,” said Jones, who bought the business with Sargent from former long-time owner Gordie Fix in 2013. “The things they asked for could have asked us seven years ago – it all could have been handled a little bit differently, but we have complied.”

On Dec. 11, the health department allowed the bar to reopen, but the restaurant remained closed.

Jeanna Miller, environmental health supervisor for the health department, said sanitarians find health code or food code violations during almost every inspection.

“It is uncommon to have zero violations cited during an inspection of a food service facility that is open and actively preparing food for customers,” said Miller. “It’s more likely to find no violations in facilities that have less going on, like a frozen food warehouse, or a catering kitchen that is not currently operating when we drop in.”

An inspector’s goal, added Miller, is to “to identify practices and conditions that may contribute to the risk of food-borne illness in a customer,” and then to educate operators and workers on changing behavior, procedure or the facility in making corrections.

“Simply put, our job is to identify things that can be improved upon, and we are able to do that in every facility,” Miller said.

Usually the corrective actions involve several phases, as the health department employs five inspectors who oversee 750 Missoula restaurants for yearly food and drink inspections alone.

“Our whole goal in the state of Montana is to find some way of getting people into compliance,” said Johnson. “Then we have those tools where, for some reason, we have a risk to public health that can’t be corrected and the establishment does not take the responsible action and close, we can take that additional step and close them with the order of the health department until those things are taken care of. There are a few different ways we can get there.”

The health department did not levy fines or penalties, but Sargent and Jones paid $215 for each of three follow-up inspections on Dec. 13, 19 and 20 to cover the costs of administrative fees.

Miller said the state legislature sets an annual fee for food service establishments. The fee covers one annual inspection. She said she does not have a current number, frequency or rate of re-inspections for all food establishments in Missoula.

By Dec. 19 and 20 inspections, the health inspector confirmed the owners had mitigated the main risks to public health and allowed the complete reopening of the full business on Dec. 20.

“They’re back open,” said Johnson. “They made the big changes we asked them to do – the big ones that were big for the public.”

Contact Business Reporter Renata Birkenbuel at 406-565-0013 and renatab@missoulacurrent.com