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Operating eateries is challenge for museums

TAMPA — When state health inspectors closed the cafe inside the Museum of Science and Industry last month due to unsanitary conditions, the incident highlighted the challenges museums throughout the Tampa Bay area face while running revenue-generating food operations.

On March 12, a Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation inspector temporarily closed the MOSI Café after rodent droppings and roaches were found throughout the kitchen. Among many violations, the inspector found dirt and dust buildup on walls and storage shelving, and the interior of a microwave was soiled with encrusted food debris, the state report said.

Although the inspection’s most damaging findings were fixed so the cafe could reopen the following day, it was closed by the museum for a professional cleaning, said Robert Thomas, chairman of MOSI’s board of directors. It has not reopened.

MOSI Café ran without incident for about five years under the management of former Chief Operating Officer Ralph Bosek. But when Bosek retired in November 2013, the cafe’s operating standards slipped, Thomas said.

“His responsibilities got distributed among department heads,” Thomas said. “We hit a speed bump and had some issues. I think they were trying to use green products to take care of the pests and they weren’t effective.”

The MOSI board met Tuesday to continue discussions on whether to hire a contractor to operate the museum’s food services. A request for proposals from five outside vendors who specialize in museums, aquariums and zoos is due by the middle of this month, said Shannon Herbon, MOSI’s communications manager. The board is expected to select a new cafe operator at its April 22 meeting. In the meantime, the museum is hosting a rotation of local food trucks outdoors.

During the past decade, museums across the county discovered that cafes and catering services could be revenue generators for their facilities as customers searched for new places to hold wedding receptions and other events.

Museums also began using food to raise money and entertain donors. The trend accelerated when celebrity chefs and restaurateurs such as Wolfgang Puck and Danny Meyer began opening cafes in museums across the country.

But Thomas said it can be a challenge for facilities to use food to enhance the customer experience. Large hospitality companies often have the flexibility and expertise of serving individual customers as well as events that can draw thousands.

The Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Thomas said, hired Ovations Food Services during his time as chairman of the zoological society. Ovations, which has offices in Lutz and Pleasanton, Calif., serves dozens of convention centers, fairgrounds, casinos and sports venues across the U.S. Lowry Park’s Zoofari event, which also features 50 local restaurants inside the park, is the biggest fundraiser of the year. The Festival of Chocolate at MOSI in January similarly attracts thousands of visitors to the museum.

Ovations “learned how to crack the code for these types of venues,” Thomas said. “They do a great job.”

Each museum has different audiences to satisfy and different tools at their disposal.

When the Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa opened in 2010, it hired the facilities company Aramark to operate the Tiny Bites Cafe and whatever catering would be required for upstairs meeting space and outdoor patio areas. When the contract expired in 2012, the Subway sandwich chain became the food provider.

During it’s most recent health inspection in February, the Subway operation was cited only for a lack of signage by a hand-washing sink in the kitchen, and the problem was immediately corrected.

A review of local inspections shows that having only one notation is extremely rare.

“Aramark was great when they were here, but ... we were introduced to Subway as another alternative, and it made sense,” said Kristen Nieves, Glazer’s operations vice president.

“The museum works really hard, together with Subway, to make sure that the Subway operations consistently live up to the expectations of the museum, the Subway franchise owner and inspection standards,” Nieves said.

Next door at the Tampa Museum of Art, the Sono Cafe and its catering operation are run by Maryann Ferenc and Marty Blitz, owners of nearby Mise en Place restaurant. The cafe serves panini sandwiches and gelato in an area adjacent to the gift shop while the catering kitchen operates in a small space on the other side of the glass-walled lobby.

After hearing about the MOSI Café problems, Ferenc said she was struck by one thought: “You don’t want this to happen at your place.”

To prevent that from happening, Sono employees make the effort to strain the water and make sure the grease trap contains only grease and not anything that could create a clog. State records show Sono met inspection standards during its October 2013 review.

“Hearing MOSI’s story makes you want to be that much smarter,” Ferenc said. “In a museum setting, you have to do more cleanings and do them more often. If you don’t do more frequent maintenance, it’s not going to work.”

Across the bay at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, the MFA Café has been operated by Olympia Catering & Events of Tampa since 2008. An inspector in November said the restaurant met state standards, records show.

Olympia owner Darren Diaz said the location should not affect a food vendor’s operation.

“The standards we have at the museum is what we have at my business at Olympia,” Diaz said.

“I don’t know anything about art,” he said. “I know catering and food. When museums try to run their own facilities, that’s where they run into trouble. You can’t just hire someone and expect they will follow all the rules.”

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