Sqirl, the popular Virgil Village lunch spot owned by Jessica Koslow, was beaten this weekend by accusations that the restaurant had been operating under unsafe and unhealthy working conditions for years. Among the allegations: Congestion is not stored properly, allowing severe fungal growth; restaurants have rodent attacks that are not dealt with in a timely manner; and the facility holds a kitchen space without permission that is deliberately hidden from the health supervisor.
The accusation was compiled on Instagram by Joe Rosenthal, a food mathematician and blogger who lives in Minnesota whose work attempts to investigate “problematic figures in the food industry.” He said he became aware of the potential concern at Sqirl last week after seeing tweets related to his Instagram account, @sqirltruth.
Rosenthal said that he had contacted more than a dozen current and former Sqirl employees since Saturday, all of whom, he said, shared similar accounts of food storage and improper safety practices in restaurants; screenshot of the conversation which was said to be then posted to his Instagram account. (The Times interviewed several of the same employees, who confirmed Rosenthal’s account.)
Most notable among the accusations was the claim that Koslow had instructed employees to scrape the molded layers of refrigerated jam buckets, serve the rest to guests in restaurants or pack them in jars for retail distribution. Rosenthal also posted a picture, allegedly sent by an Sqirl employee, of what appeared to be a plastic bucket full of jam covered with a thick layer of mold that had been partially scrapped using a rubber spatula.
Sqirl, which opened in 2012, has emerged as one of the most famous restaurants in LA over the past decade, garnering praise from critics and publications across the country and developing a significant following for its stylish comfort food brands, including ricotta toast jam. Long lines outside the East Hollywood storefront are common.
Koslow has been nominated for the James Beard Award for his work at Sqirl and is in the group’s first Food Preserver Master in Los Angeles, a program run by the University of California University Cooperative Extension program. He is scheduled to release his second cookbook, which addresses the topic of making jam, on July 21.
Responding to the allegation, the restaurant posted a statement to its Twitter and Instagram accounts on Sunday asserting that “mold will sometimes develop on the surface” of mass jams due to low sugar content, similar to “the type of mold that develops in some cheeses, charcuterie, old beef, and many other preserved foods. “
On Monday, Koslow issued a statement to The Times apologize to customers and employees.
“All the retail jams we have ever sold – that is, jams in jars purchased from us and in stores – are pasteurized and canned with a” hot pack “method that makes mold growth basically impossible. The same recipe is used in restaurants, but because the jam is low in sugar and we don’t use chemicals or preservatives, there are some cases where mold will develop on the surface.
“When this happens, we will delete it. To guide this practice, I rely on research and guidance from health experts and to my knowledge it is safe.
“I eat the same jam that I serve for my customers, family and friends and will never intentionally serve food that will endanger their health. “I realized that I was wrong and I’m sorry,” he said.
The restaurant’s social media statement said that the process to deal with mushroom growth was carried out “under the guidance of mentors and conservationists like Dr. Patrick Hickey, by removing jams a few inches below the mold, or by removing the container altogether.”
Hickey, a mycologist and mushroom expert based in Edinburgh, is quoted in BBC News 2014 states that moldy jam is safe for consumption after the mold has been removed and jam consumed immediately. However, contacted by telephone, Hickey explained this practice could only be accepted in very limited quantities. “A small amount of mushrooms in the jam in your fridge is unlikely to hurt you,” he said, but added that the production of large amounts of jam in commercial kitchens was a different matter. He also said he was not familiar with Sqirl or Koslow and had never talked to anyone in the restaurant about handling mold.
The risk of food-borne toxins, produced by several molds, is far greater with substances in gel or porous form, such as jam, compared to dried-aged meat or cheese, Hickey said. “My recent research shows that spores can grow deep enough to gel when they disperse,” he added. “Because the fungus will continue to spread and create spore dust, it is a significant concern for those who are exposed to the environment repeatedly.”
In the official guidelines for mold growth in food, the USDA suggests that jam or jelly with mushrooms must be removed: “Molds can produce mycotoxins. Microbiologists recommend not taking the mold and using the remaining herbs. “
Gelyn Montanino, a former pastry chef at Sqirl, said that moldy buckets continued to be a problem in restaurants when he was hired in August 2019. “I immediately felt disgusted,” he recalled. “I asked about it and no one has a real reason why it happened. Almost all buckets will have a thick layer of mold on it without a lid or wrapper. I have watched cooks scrape mold and put jam in their pans for the drain. “
The former employee also told The Times that improper jam storage was not the only problem about food and employee safety at Sqirl.
Sasha Piligian, a former pastry chef who worked at Sqirl from 2016 to 2019, referred to the “printed story” in an email interview and also mentioned “the illegal kitchen where we all worked for years, hiding from the health department.”
Elise Fields, a baker in Sqirl from 2018 to 2019, said he could confirm the allegations posted by Rosenthal.
“Most of my time there was spent working in the kitchen, which was cramped, full, insecure and without ventilation,” Fields said. “During a shocking health inspection, I and other cooks had to hide and lock themselves inside during an inspection that took more than an hour to complete. … The whole area of preparation, dry storage, walk-in, storage area, and basically every aspect of the non-cafe area is terrible and disorganized and the most unfriendly environment I have ever handled. “
Before the major overhaul of Sqirl in 2018, very little about the restaurant was “according to the code,” according to a former manager who asked not to be named because of concerns about future work and who also said the restaurant had a flea problem.
However, Koslow said that Sqirl “does not and does not have mouse problems.” He also discussed the accusations about “secondary kitchen space” obtained in 2013.
“Around that time, our secondary kitchen fell off the Ministry of Health’s radar, despite the fact that Sqirl’s main kitchen received regular inspections,” he said. “Embarrassed, I took advantage of their supervision and did the best we could because we use Sqirl’s main kitchen for all our restaurant orders including jam, and use the secondary kitchen mainly to make bread and prepare food. We risk shutting down, but in our industry, this is common and I only focus on turning on the lights and keeping my team working. “
According to LA County health department records, Sqirl has been inspected by officials at least 15 times since September 2015 and has never received a health rating score below 91.0, which is ranked “A”. An email to the district Health Department regarding allegations against Sqirl was not immediately returned.
Koslow said he changed the crash program by applying the pasteurized “hot pack” method – the same technique is said to have been used previously for retail products – for all jams used in restaurants. He also said he would submit jam samples to an independent laboratory, Certified Laboratories Inc., for testing to ensure safety and longevity.
“I know I have lost the trust of our loyal customers, partners and jam customers and hope that my sincere regret and change shows that I have learned from my mistakes and enough to get a second chance from them,” Koslow said.
When news of the allegation spread, several retailers – including Now Serving and DTLA Cheese – pulled or considered pulling Sqirl jam products from their shelves. A statement from Diaspora Co., a sustainable spice company known as sole turmeric, said that after “many hours of conversations with Sqirl employees (now and before), printouts expose and some difficult convoys with Sqirl’s leadership,” he considered the latest hour collaboration with Sqirl became a “mistake.”
The company takes out the remaining jars from its site and offers refunds to customers who have purchased the product.
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