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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Cracking the Code

Matt McBride stands in the drive-thru of the Pizza Hut on the West Side of Evansville with a pry bar in his hand. The two manhole-type covers in the ground usually would go unnoticed by the average passerby; but, as fats, oils, and grease (FOG) coordinator for the Evansville Water and Sewer Utility, the holes lead to a complex system McBride navigates every day.

He pries the cover off the first hole and steam carrying a pungent smell infuses the cold air — the smell of hot, stale grease.

The average diner has a general idea of the type of equipment they might find in their favorite restaurant’s kitchen, but the largest and often most expensive piece of equipment is one they will never see and might not know exists — the grease trap.

A grease trap is exactly as it sounds: a plumbing device used to trap fats, oils, and grease before wastewater enters the sewer system. If uncontrolled, FOG can create a blockage in the system by displacing the amount of water and waste the sewer was designed to carry, causing a combined sewer overflow.

“By eliminating the amount of FOG that gets in there, we eliminate the amount of overflow we have in the city, which is raw sewage that’s going into our streets, Pigeon Creek, and in the river,” says McBride. “We do everything we can to keep that as minimal as possible.”

In September 2009, the United States and Indiana filed a lawsuit against Evansville for alleged violations of its Clean Water Act discharge permits, including combined sewer overflows, sanitary sewer overflows, and sewage release into the homes, streets, and yards of city residents.

As part of the settlement and Consent Decree made in January 2011, Evansville had to make numerous changes to the sewer system, including the addition of a FOG program to monitor and control the amount of FOG introduced into the system. Today, McBride is at the helm of the new program that has worked to clean out a clogged system by enforcing grease trap sizing and maintenance.

Upgrades to the water and sewer system also have meant lower electricity costs, as the FOG brought back to receiving stations at the plant is burned off into methane that now powers almost half of the plant’s operations. Evansville is the first city in the country to create clean energy from FOG.

The new program means not only do food service establishments have to have a grease trap, but they also have to have a grease trap that meets specific requirements and is regularly emptied and maintained — something that comes as a surprise to many entrepreneurs with a dream of feeding the community.

After leaving his partnership with Ninki Japanese Bistro in Newburgh, Indiana, in April 2016, Joseph Kim was ready to start his own restaurant in Owensboro, Kentucky. Gangnam Korean BBQ opened at the end of 2016 with an Evansville location following four months later in April 2017. Coming into his Main Street location in Downtown Evansville, Kim thought he was walking into a turnkey operation, but the location lacked one major necessity.

Evansville Water and Sewer Utility FOG coordinator Matt McBride measures the amount of solids in the grease trap at The Dapper Pig.

“[McBride], he’s a realist. He came in here and told me, ‘You know you’ve got to have a sufficient grease trap here,’” says Kim. “The whole grease trap situation was a big surprise for me. I was thinking it’s a small little box that goes under your sink, and that’s what we had in Owensboro, but they’re talking about the big boys. I didn’t know those kinds of grease traps even existed.”

According to the Indiana Administrative Code, grease trap sizing must be determined in gallons by a formula that considers how many meals are served at peak hour, waste flow rate, the number of dishwashing machines used, the number of single service kitchen sinks, and the hours of operation. If there is not a seating capacity to go off of, a different formula is used, which calculates based on drainage fixture units. However in either case, the minimum capacity cannot be less than 1,000 gallons or exceed 2,000 gallons.

Left out of the formula is consideration of the restaurant’s menu. McBride says people would be surprised by how much FOG is generated in restaurants that don’t fry food. Unless a restaurant is sticking to a strict menu of raw vegetables, the food will produce at least a little bit of oil.

“Before [the Consent Decree] our ordinance was pretty ambiguous,” says McBride. “There was no guidance there for sizing. There were no specifics on what needed to be connected or what didn’t need to be connected. I don’t want to be heavy handed or breathing down their necks, but at the same time we have to do what we can to help them implement the best management practices we need to keep the grease out of the sewer.”

For Kim, this surprise in plans cost an additional $25,000, not including the maintenance cost of regularly emptying and cleaning the trap. At his Owensboro location, Kim built the restaurant from scratch, completely changing his plans halfway through to double the space from 2,000 to 4,000 square feet after the occupants next door decided not to renew their lease. Even with the addition of space in Owensboro, it took him even longer to open in Evansville because of the regulations in Vanderburgh County Kim had to navigate he says.

Amy Word-Smith, owner of Lamasco and The Dapper Pig, says the process of trying to comply with code and regulations while remodeling Lamasco and opening The Dapper Pig sometimes made her feel criminalized for putting money and time back into the community. She says between her two restaurants she employs more than 60 people, 20 of whom are full time, amounting in around $600,000 in yearly expenses — and she says she’s one of the smaller operations.

“You’re talking about your citizens who want to invest hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars, and you’re making it difficult for them,” says Word-Smith. “We’ve got to rethink how we’re doing this. We should be facilitators and not enforcers.”

Since taking over Lamasco on West Franklin Street from her aunt nine years ago, Word-Smith says Evansville has made many changes to be more receptive and welcoming to business from food service establishments. When Word-Smith first got into the industry, not all of the information she needed to access was available online. Today, it all is available, including a revamped portal for site review and accessing the area plan commission.

At The Dapper Pig, located in Haynie’s Corner in a remodeled house originally built in 1885, Word-Smith had to apply for a variance with the state because of the space she was working with and installed a large, brand-new grease trap. At the existing trap at Lamasco, she had an inspection completed with camera scopes to check for blockages, which didn’t uncover any problems.

“In most of our cases we all have grease logs. We’ve all been doing what we’re supposed to,” she says. “I think there’s a fine line between making sure we’re protecting our drinking water and allocating resources correctly and some overkill regulation that is not necessary.”

McBride says when it comes to grease traps, the biggest violations he sees are restaurants not regularly cleaning the traps. Depending on the size and type of grease trap, maintenance may be needed as much as twice a month.

As part of the Consent Decree, the FOG program has to do inspections of every food service establishment once every five years, with at least 40 percent of grease control measures inspected every two consecutive years. McBride says FOG inspector Jesse Bermal tries to do an inspection at every food service establishment every year; otherwise the program would encounter major problems with noncompliance.

“I get it,” says McBride. “It doesn’t do anything to make their food taste better. It doesn’t bring any customers through their door. But it’s an added expense they ultimately are responsible for.”

The restaurant industry is one of the most notoriously difficult industries with a high rate of failure. Many hopeful restaurant owners have dreams of serving up delicious dishes to customers, not understanding the challenges that can come with the job.

“There are a small percentage who get frustrated and say, ‘Oh, there are so many regulations,’” says Christian Borowiecki, director of the environmental division for the Vanderburgh County Health Department. “But then I try to express the food industry particularly is a regulated industry. There’s a lot of regulation, because you could get someone sick. It could lead to death. There are a lot of safety regulations needed to prevent foodborne illnesses.”

The key for any industry is finding the balance between putting safeguards in place and allowing room for growth. From parking variances and liquor licenses to signage and grease traps, no industry knows this better than food.

“It’s already stressful to open a business,” says Nicholas Davidson, head brewer at Tin Man. “When you have someone tell you, ‘Oh, you looked at this but not at that,’ it’s frustrating. It can be really frustrating and anti-business.”

Grease traps weren’t Davidson’s sticking point when opening up Tin Man on West Franklin Street. After moving back to his hometown from Indianapolis, Davidson wasn’t interested in starting a restaurant. He was there for the beer. However, because of regulations in Indiana’s Alcohol and Tobacco Commission, Davidson was forced to have enough food to serve at least 25 people off a menu including hot soups, hot sandwiches, coffee and milk, and soft drinks. The rule is a requirement for any establishment wishing to serve by the glass in Indiana, although the minimum menu isn’t required to be officially listed or advertised within the bar or restaurant.

“Now, we could’ve done what a lot of people do and had a can of condensed milk somewhere,” says Davidson. “You can get around that thing pretty easily, but we didn’t want to do that. If we were going to have a restaurant, we were going to try to do it right. And I feel we did. There’s just a lot more to a restaurant than making food.”

Since its beginning in 2012, Tin Man always was supposed to be about the beer. It was first and foremost a production brewery; but in order to sell by the glass, all of the challenges of operating a restaurant had to be added to the equation. By March 2017, it was clear the formula didn’t add up. Any restaurant at the basic level has to cover overhead costs, which can add up quickly. After pouring money into the business for several years, Davidson and his family realized it was no longer sustainable. Tin Man announced the taproom and restaurant would be closing, while continuing operation of the brewery.

That summer, Tin Man announced they had been purchased by Louisville-based Neace Ventures and would be sister breweries with Falls City Beer. In August, the taproom opened again. This time the challenge wouldn’t be battling state regulations, but changing the perception of a customer-base who misunderstood the true purpose from the beginning.

“That was sort of what I feel like we failed at the first time. People saw this more as a restaurant that made its own beer,” says Davidson. “That’s not what it was. It was a brewery that had a restaurant. It’s really a tough, tough business. If you don’t have the heart for it, you shouldn’t do it. The stars have to align sometimes for restaurants to succeed.”

While grease traps have been a continual frustration for restaurant owners in Evansville, the issue is a drop in the bucket of hurdles to overcome in order to open the doors. From the Uniform Plumbing Code and Indiana Administrative Code to Evansville’s Consent Decree and the Environmental Protection Agency’s acts, trying to comply with regulations is less like marking tasks off a to-do list and more like trudging through an obstacle course.

“You can have the right staff, you can be in the right location, you can have a good product, and you can still not work,” says Word-Smith. “Thus why you have so many that just don’t make it. It’s a very tough industry.”

For those who do find their stride, they get the satisfaction of knowing they are contributing to the economic development of the city and providing cultural experiences for the people of the community. Even greater, they have the satisfaction of knowing they succeeded despite all the odds.

“Growth is amazing, but it’s not always necessarily easy,” says Word-Smith. “There was no other feeling like the day [Lamasco] reopened. The final inspectors came, everyone cleared off, they gave us our certificate of occupancy for the new stage, and I just stood up on the stage and cried. That first night we had a huge party and the whole place was absolutely packed. In that moment, it all becomes absolutely worth it.”

To learn more about food regulations and policies in Vanderburgh County:
Evansville Water and Sewer Utility,
812-436-7846, ewsu.com
Vanderburgh County Health Department,
812-435-2400, health.vanderburghcounty.in.gov

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