TAMPA — The Museum of Science and Industry has temporarily closed its cafe in the wake of news reports about sanitation problems there.
Robert Thomas, chairman of the museum’s board of directors, said the restaurant was closed so a professional cleaning crew could give it a “real deep, deep cleaning.”
“The outside contractor coming in is not able to start until Monday morning, so the prudent move was just to close it,” Thomas said.
A local television station reported last week that the restaurant was cited for a number of violations in January and on March 12. In addition to grease mold buildup, inspectors from the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation found scores of dead roaches and rodent droppings.
News of the health violations gathered additional force Wednesday when Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham alerted fellow board members about the situation. Higginbotham and some other commissioners were angry that they had not been notified by MOSI that there were problems with the cafe.
The discussion initiated by Higginbotham also brought to light financial problems at the museum, which did not pay back $250,000 borrowed from the county in November 2012. The museum asked to borrow another $250,000 last August, triggering an investigation of MOSI’s finances by county accountants.
The money was borrowed from a $1.2 million fund the county set up to tide the museum over during slow seasons. Under the agreement, MOSI was to pay the money back within a year.
Higginbotham suggested Wednesday that MOSI should bid out its food service to a private company. As a board member for the Florida Aquarium, Higginbotham pushed to privatize its restaurant. The board agreed and now the aquarium restaurant is a “profit center,” Higginbotham said.
Thomas said the MOSI board considered privatizing the cafe four or five years ago, but the staff argued they could operate the food service in a “profitable and better fashion than outsourcing.” “With a snapshot of the last 36 hours, maybe (the cafe) hasn’t had the proper supervision,” Thomas said. “Outsourcing is an option. Those kinds of decisions will be made in a thoughtful way; not a reactionary way.”
Hillsborough County, which owns the MOSI buildings and property, has hired a consultant to look at the museum’s operations. A report is due in late April or early May.