For employees in Bedford’s restaurant industry, Jennifer Thomas is a familiar face.
Line cooks, bartenders and owners know her — she’s a health inspector — and if she comes in on her day off, she raises her hands like a white flag and says, I’m just here to eat.
She knows they know this is a compliment. She wouldn’t be there if she didn’t trust them.
For Thomas and the 10 sanitarians she supervises on Tarrant County Public Health’s consumer health team, health inspection is a relational business. “Our department has always come from a very educational standpoint: I’m here to help you and make you better,” Thomas said.
The work is also a numbers game. Each person on Thomas’ team oversees roughly 500 food permits across nearly 40 cities in Tarrant County, not including the pools and day cares they also inspect. Most require inspections at least twice a year and, if problems arise, may require follow-up inspections or immediate closure.
Despite the team members’ ubiquity, very few people outside of the restaurant industry know they exist, Thomas said. Her boss and former health inspector Raj Chauhan, who leads the environmental health division for the county, told the Fort Worth Report that they’re “shadow workers.”
“We are very invisible,” Thomas said. “No one knows we’re here until something goes wrong.”
Cattle drives and the history of food inspection
A year after novelist Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” a work of fiction that nevertheless exposed filth in Chicago’s meatpacking industry, the government passed two laws to regulate food sanitation and promote transparency in packaging.
The ensuing decades brought further reform. Today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration establishes national food safety guidelines, which states customize to suit their environments. In Texas, for example, the Texas Food Establishment Rules regulate outfitter operations, events like cattle drives where “everybody feeds you,” Thomas said. “Typical Texas things.”
Thomas grew up in College Station. She calls herself a “native Aggie,” and as a child, she helped her parents run their family’s gas station. Her dad told her he’d pay for her college if she stayed local, so she enrolled in Texas A&M’s animal science program on the business side.
A professor encouraged the route: “He slowed me down and said, ‘Hey, I know you really like the vet school idea, but your heart is in business and in working with people.’”
The degree equipped her in everything from meatpacking to pharmaceutical sales, and after she graduated she put her skills to use as an assistant manager at a Luby’s cafeteria in North Texas. There, she became fluent in Spanish — “kitchen Spanish” — and learned the ins and outs of food inspections from the restaurant side of the line.
In late 2002, after nearly four years in the role, she was ready for a slower pace — to maybe have children, spend more time with her dog. She found an opening for a health inspector at Tarrant County Public Health and applied.
When she walked onsite to meet her interviewer, she discovered she already knew him. He was her parents’ health inspector at the gas station back home.
‘We’re very, very good at what we do’
To become a registered sanitarian, or health inspector, in Texas, a person must have at least a bachelor’s degree that includes 30 hours of basic or applied science, two years of related work experience and pass a state registration exam.
Soft skills matter, too, Thomas said. Especially customer service. “I joke that I can talk to anybody from the fry cook all the way up to a CEO,” she said. Sometimes, when a restaurant owner is anxious or angry, she works to diffuse the tension.
Once, while inspecting a small, family-run restaurant, she found spotty hot water, a lack of soap and sanitizer, and some sort of rodent poop. Thomas shut the place down.” (The owner) arrived very angry,” she remembers. She walked him through her report piece by piece, pointing out what she’d discovered. When she returned the next day, everything was pristine, and the owner apologized for his behavior. “‘I did not know how bad it had gotten,’” he told her.
Thomas’ team interacts with restaurant employees from myriad cultures. Some of her colleagues speak multiple languages, and the versatility helps. “You have to be able to talk to anyone,” she said.
Finally, an inspector needs the ability to balance. Although her team isn’t responsible for several cities in Tarrant County, including Fort Worth and Arlington — which have their own inspection teams — the workload is “massive,” she said. Thomas and her colleagues might inspect anywhere from two to nine sites a day. Each inspection requires a written report, which the county then makes public. And when a foodborne illness breaks out, her team helps investigate.
Want to know how your favorite restaurants score?
Check out inspection reports for restaurants in Fort Worth and Tarrant County, here.
In 2022, the median salary for a county sanitarian was roughly $65,000. They’re sorely understaffed, Thomas said. In the nearly two decades she’s worked for the public health department, the number of inspectors hasn’t kept pace with the county.
Finally, that’s about to change. Thanks to a recent public health grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the team is hiring: Nine new people who can soften the burden of an ever-expanding population. Eventually, they plan to make the positions permanent.
“We’re very, very good at what we do,” Thomas said, “but we’re happy to have some people coming to help relieve us a little bit.”
‘Hey, this is messed up. Let’s fix it’
Thomas inspects the Texas Roadhouse in Bedford roughly twice a year. Normally, the inspection would be a surprise, but this time she asked for permission in advance so the Fort Worth Report could tag along.
Thomas knows the restaurant’s managing partner, Brian Close, well enough to expect a tight ship. Still, she’s methodical as she wends through the kitchen, just off Texas 121 on Crystal Springs Street.
“I have that relationship with a lot of people, but they also know — and that’s part of me and my discipline with my job — that I do come in here with a fresh pair of eyes every time,” she said. “I’m not afraid to tell them, ‘Hey, this is messed up. Let’s fix it.’”
She’s looking for expired ingredients, food stored at improper temperatures, hazardous working conditions and anything else that could compromise her purpose: To make sure people have safe food to eat.
Throughout her tour, she pauses to wash her hands — partly to determine if the sinks work, that they’re clearly designated as hand-washing stations, that there’s a paper towel dispenser and trash can nearby, that they’re easily accessible, and partly to make sure she’s not bringing anything unsavory into the space.
Meanwhile, her eyes work. They flick from the floor, to the walls, to the ceiling, always in that order, to make sure nothing is awry. She’s looking for possible contaminants: Drips from the air conditioning, chemicals stacked above food on shelves, rats, glass, mold.
On inspection days, which is every day, Thomas wears clothes she wouldn’t mind spotted with the grease or chemicals she’s likely to encounter. Her hair is tied back and her shoes are close-toed. As she walks, she clasps her hands to make sure she’s not touching her face or other surfaces.
She’s trying to set an example, she said, and she knows she’s invading someone else’s space. “They think of me as, I don’t want to say a contaminant, but I’m an outside person.”
Her sidekick is a satchel worn near her hip, a Mary Poppins bag of equipment she fishes out throughout the inspection: Thermometers for checking food temperatures, test strips for cleaning products, a disk that simulates a plate to check temperatures in a dishwasher and Q-tips. The latter, she uses to swap the nozzles on soda fountains. For light, like to check for mold inside the ice machine, she uses her smartphone.
She’s efficient but kind. When she passes by an employee, she says hi.
Thomas knows the woman who makes the rolls at this location — the latter has worked in this very kitchen for 18 years.
‘We’re there when nobody’s watching’
Roughly two hours later, when all is said and done, the Texas Roadhouse kitchen scores a 100/100. The restaurant’s bar scores a 97/100 — minus three points for an unlabeled spray bottle. Thomas brings the matter up with Close, the restaurant’s managing partner.
“It’s actually one of the biggest point violations that we have,” she told the Report, then simulated a discussion.
“I joke with people, like if it’s blue, they’re like, ‘Uh, it’s Windex.’
And I’m like, ‘It’s not blue Kool-Aid?’
And they’ll be like, ‘No…’
And I’m like, ‘Well, how do I know? You know, I’m a new employee that started yesterday.’”
She files the official report on a tablet at the Texas Roadhouse bar, just as the restaurant begins to open to customers for the evening. Close sits next to her as she reviews her observations.
He’s thankful for Thomas’ work. “She’s just coming in to do her job, right? And protect our guests, which is also a big thing for sales,” he said. “She’s helping me to protect my brand and make money, (and) my guests are happy.”
As Thomas and Close wrapped up their conversation, Chauhan, Thomas’ supervisor, surveyed the restaurant. People were slowly filling up the surrounding booths.
“What you see in this restaurant today is people enjoying their food, and not having to worry about, hey, is my kid going to get sick?” Chauhan said. “Everybody’s having a good quality of life, whether it’s at a pool, a child care, a temporary event, a mobile food truck, a restaurant — because we’re there when nobody’s watching. We’re taking care of those things.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.