Denver's popular food trucks and carts have suffered from a significant problem: unwashed hands.
A Denver Post review of a year's worth of data found that 41 percent of inspections of Denver's 166 trucks were reported to have a problem with hand-washing. Most had no supply of water, and almost half of those that did had no soap or paper towels.
Inspections, which mark a point in time, may not indicate that a prolonged violation exists. Nevertheless, safety experts expressed concern about The Post's findings.
"Unfortunately, we have seen that," said Bob McDonald, director of Public Health Inspections for the Department of Environmental Health in Denver. "It is considered a critical violation and imminent health risk."
The problem appears to be a great equalizer. Inspectors of Denver's food trucks and carts, which seek out the city's hot spots, issued citations to both high-end and traditional trucks. Even trucks at Denver's upscale Civic Center Eats have been temporarily shut down after the typically unannounced inspections.
Some people around Denver felt that as long as the trucks had some sort of sanitation, such as hand sanitizer, it wasn't a problem that they didn't have water or soap. (Hand sanitizers are OK to use, health officials say, but not in place of running water and soap.)
Denver resident Marty Teska said last week it would be nice if truck operators washed their hands, but added, "I trust them."
Others didn't see it that way.
Cathy Koehler of Little Rock, Ark., was visiting Denver for business. She called the idea that food-truck operators may not wash their hands "disgusting."
"When I go back home, I'm going to ask them if they have proper hand sanitation," she said.
Inspectors often issue multiple violations in a single visit. Common problems include risky storage of delicate foods that spoil easily and cooked foods that aren't kept warm enough.
Truck and cart operators can correct the problems quickly — and they often do. Operators aren't allowed to reopen until violations have been corrected.
Inspectors visit each food truck or cart at least once a year, the city's health department says. A few are given follow-up visits if needed.
McDonald says the inspection rate means it's possible that some operators could go for long periods of time working in unsanitary conditions, but that isn't always the case.
Weather — especially in Colorado — often plays a role in causing conditions for violations, McDonald said.
Crock Spot, which serves slow-cooked gourmet food at Civic Center Eats, in January dealt firsthand with problems related to a cold snap.
To avoid burst pipes in the truck overnight, employees drained the water tanks at the end of every day, according to manager Peter Edholm. Unfortunately, water left in the tanks one night froze and damaged the pipes, so the truck had no working water lines.
On Jan. 23, Crock Spot operators were waiting on a new pipe when an inspector arrived. The operators had filled jugs of water for hand-washing and told the inspector they also sometimes used the sinks at nearby facilities.
Denver health code states that "all facilities involved in food handling should be equipped with cold water and hot water reaching 90 degrees or above from a designated hand sink."
The truck was shut down until the pipes could be fixed and reinspected.
Edholm said the $1,000 fine associated with the violation was eventually waived and the food truck passed an inspection at the beginning of June.
Edholm told The Post he was surprised so many food trucks had a problem with providing a proper hand-washing sink during inspections, given that food trucks typically are equipped with a sink and owners fear the sting of lost business and fines of up to $1,250.
"It's just going to cost you money," he said.
Other problems food trucks tend to face include water pumps breaking, water heaters going out, trying to cook food in a place not correctly equipped and lacking knowledge of food safety, according to Danica Lee, the food-safety section manager of Public Health Inspections.
"As inspectors, we understand that these things can happen," Lee said. "But the operators have a responsibility to safety."
Food trucks have been around for a long time, according to Matt Geller, who works with the National Food Truck Association. But their popularity is growing as a result of a jump in gourmet food trucks such as Crock Spot.
"No one cared about a food truck six years ago," Geller said.
Newer trucks that target higher-end customers are inspected more often than the traditional trucks, he said, because they announce where they will be all the time. Their business model is to be front and center.
Geller said food trucks get a bad reputation, adding that there are more major violations in brick-and-mortar restaurants than in mobile units.
McDonald countered that mobile units see more closures for imminent health risks.
Sweet Cow, also serving at Civic Center Eats, was briefly shut down for not having water last June. Founder Drew Honness said water tanks weren't properly filled when the inspection occurred.
"We fixed it 35 minutes after the inspection, and they came back and cleared us," Honness said. "Every time after, we have never had a problem."
He said health inspectors are pretty reasonable with food trucks.
Mobile units are expected to follow the same health code as restaurants, with a specific chapter for food-truck-related issues, but Honness said "a lot of people think that they don't have to be in compliance like a normal restaurant, but that's not true."
Corrie Sahling: 303-954-1223, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/corriesahling