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Mouse poop confrontation permanently closes Saint John deli

After 37 years in business, Jeremiah's Deli closes this week because of Public Health Act violations

A wooden statue of Jeremiah Hamilton stood alone at a dark counter in the Saint John City Market this week.

It was a strange sight at normally busy Jeremiah's Deli, which opened in 1978 in the space formerly occupied by Hamilton, a legendary Saint John blacksmith.

Jeremiah's is closing for good, owner Graham Stilwell announced this week.

Last Friday a routine health inspection led to the revocation of the licence for the restaurant known for affordably priced sandwiches, soups and fresh-sliced deli meats.

"I've operated a great shop over there for 37 years," Stilwell said. "I've had hundreds of employees."

According to Stilwell, there's more to the inspection results than meets the eye.

He believes the issues that led to the shutdown of his deli illustrate a larger issue at the market — and with New Brunswick's system for restaurant health inspections.

Rodent issue

Friday the 13th was an unlucky day for Jeremiah's.

During a pop-in site inspection, an inspector from the Department of Health noticed rodent droppings on the floor, shelving and counter, as well as under the cash register, in the cooler and freezer area and on ingredient bins.

"Yes, mouse droppings are a disgusting thing," Stilwell said."But if there is a problem in the back of a counter, where no food comes in contact, that is not any problem with the public health.

"Everyone is aware that the City Market has a rodent issue."

Stilwell independently hired a pest-control business two months ago to help deal with the issue.

"He told me I was wasting my money because there was no way he could make any improvement whatsoever," he said, adding that expecting to eliminate all signs of rodents in a 142-year old market is "asking the impossible."

A food premises Inspection form dated Friday, April 13, also noted concerns about temperature logs not being updated, "contaminants from unclean racks" falling into food that was stored uncovered, and a failure to label some products.

Second visit

Stilwell and his staff spent the weekend cleaning the problem areas, he said. On Monday, "my staff was totally confident there would be no problem."

When the health inspector returned around 11 a.m., he noted "rodent droppings are still present in various areas in the kitchen" and some frozen prepared products were still not labelled with the date of preparation.

Stilwell said a dead mouse was also discovered in the cash register area.

He was advised that the restaurant's licence would be suspended at 2 p.m. He refused to close.

"I didn't agree with him," he said.

The inspector then revoked the restaurant's licence.

On Tuesday, Stilwell said he attempted to reapply but discovered he'd be starting from scratch with the process, as if he'd never run a restaurant.

"I couldn't believe it," Stilwell said. "Detailed description of health and sanitary practices, detailed description of health and safety program for employees, floor plans, traffic flows.

"There was at least a day's paperwork there. I'm 65 this summer — 37 years in the business. I don't have the fight."

He didn't offer details on how many staff are affected by the closure.

"My staff are looked after. I told them not to worry for the immediate future and we'll just have to see what happens going forward."

'They can destroy you'

Stilwell would like to see an appeal process in place for restaurants that fail health inspections.

"They come in with tremendous power, you have no recourse … Even though you run a top-notch establishment for as long as I have, they can destroy you."

In an emailed statement, the Department of Health stated "the license was revoked due to the establishment failing to fulfill the required action to ensure compliance with hygiene standards required by the Department of Health . . . Any establishment that has a license revoked by a Medical Officer of Health can re-open as soon as required corrections are made and the required application for a license is approved."

According to the City of Saint John, market vendors place "customer experience and safety at the centre of their operations.

"With regular inspections, proper maintenance procedures and practices, and control measures in place, the Market maintains a high operating standard and offers an exceptional customer experience."

"The Market has a full-time Manager and full time cleaning and maintenance staff who work within the facility every day. Regular maintenance procedures include a hired pest control prevention service."

No regrets

Despite the sadness of closing, Stilwell said he "would do exactly the same all over again."

Jeremiah's planned to hold a closing-out sale Saturday to offload the remaining food — but Stilwell learned late Friday such sales were prohibited by his lease.

He said there's already been some interest from parties looking to buy the business.

"There have been developments overnight," he said.

"I doubt it will be me — but perhaps it will live."