Heath Department Loosens Reins: How To Prepare For The New Inspections and Reviews


As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Department of Health will allow some “low-risk” food sellers to self-certify their inspections. This would include businesses that sell pre-packaged food and beverages with minimal food preparation. Even if this revision seems to be most relevant to 7-11s and gas stations, small food businesses will benefit from the reduced supervision. Restaurants who have not had a food safety related closing for 36 months will also be eligible to self-certify. Unfortunately, the main issue with the Department of Health has not been the frequency of inspections, so much as the amount of time it takes to have plans reviewed by the department and the inconsistent application of design regulations.

The Department of Health is a vast regulatory body that oversees everything related to public health. The Food Protection Division is just one segment of the department, and is responsible for restaurants, taverns, groceries, commissaries, and hot dog cars.

The process for plan review of food related businesses has changed three times over the past three years. In 2009, plans for new food businesses were reviewed by the Department of Health, independent of the Building Department’s review, at their main office on Lexington Street in Tri-Taylor. In 2010, and, unfortunately without notice to anyone in the design profession, the plans were routed through the Building Department’s plan review pipeline. Though this streamlined the process for certain permits, eliminating the need for a separate submittal to the Lexington Office (despite the most recent “Guide to Your Health Inspection” saying you still must), it slowed the review of restaurant/food plans that qualified for the City’s Easy Permit Program. Since EPP projects aren’t sent through the normal DoB pipeline, there is no good way for the plans to reach the Health Department’s desk for review. (And once they do, there’s only one person in all of City Hall that reviews plans for the Health Department). Something I, and most of my colleagues, have found out the hard way.

Despite all this, the best way to be ready for a review or inspection by the Health Department is to know the rules and how they are interpreted. The health code reads much like VCR instructions and probably sets the record for the most vague use of the word ‘adequate’. Here are some hangups and misnomers I’ve seen over the years.

  • The code calls for floor materials to be “made of durable and approved materials that are smooth and easily cleaned”. I was once told by an inspector that the existing wood floor that we were salvaging would have to be stained a different color so they could tell it was sealed…?!?  Seriously! Anyway, we eventually had the clear, VOC-free sealant approved with a letter from the general contractor stating that they did, in fact, seal the wood floor.
  • Restaurants will almost always be required to have four sinks in the kitchen/prep and warewash areas: a three compartment sink (with an attached grease trap for utensil washing), a prep sink, hand sink (sometimes more than one depending on the layout of the space), and a mop sink (required for most commercial spaces anyway). This is separate from the obvious need for lavatories in the restroom(s). Floor drains are also required in each prep, warewash, bar area, and in the restrooms.
  • If you are a restaurant you probably need at least two restrooms. Despite the fact that many small restaurants have only one shared restroom (mainly due to when the restaurant use was first established in a particular space, and not when the latest restaurant business has set up shop), any new restaurant with more than 10 seats requires at least two separate restrooms. This is Illinois State Code and the Chicago Building Department is looking out for this specifically now when reviewing plans because of a crackdown by the State (this was told to me by a plan reviewer).
  • Food trucks: There has been so much written about this and the information changes monthly since there is an ordinance in City Hall now. So, I don’t think I need to elaborate. Here is the latest as written by Eater Chicago.

  • Approved wall and finish materials: This issue has come a long way since my first atypical wall material in a restaurant (i.e., exposed masonry, wood, concrete, etc), but there is still confusion amongst the inspectors it seems. Masonry or concrete may be exposed anywhere in a restaurant expect the food prep/storage and warewashing areas (up to 8′ above the floor) as long as it is properly sealed and does not readily flake off. Ordering or check out counter area may have exposed wall materials.

  • Exposed wood beams and ceilings are allowed anywhere in a restaurant as long as they are painted and/or sealed. Granted, of course, that it is allowed by other sections of the building code for fire separations and resistance. (Typically, a 1-hour fire separation is required between mercantile (restaurants under 100 occupants) and residential uses).

With so much ambiguity in the process there are a lot of frustrated people in the food business. Rightly so. The best thing anyone can do is be prepared and know what to expect. There is no need to work around the rules since there are so many creative design options available to work with them.