Inspections reveal some Madison food carts had health violations

Inspections revealed Dane County’s food carts generally follow health guidelines, but a handful of owners have been shut down over the past year to fix violations.

The county’s 75 licensed and operating food carts, most of which set up shop in Madison, typically passed inspections on the first try, according to records from Public Health of Madison and Dane County.

But 11 of the carts had serious enough violations to require a re-inspection, and four got shut down over the past year because of a lack of hot water and broken sinks or refrigerators.

“Hand washing is the No. 1 way to prevent foodborne illness, so that’s our top priority on all of our inspections — and then proper food temperatures,” said Beth Cleary, who oversees the inspections for the health department.

The number of food carts within the county has grown, and inspectors visit all of them at least once a year, Cleary said.

In all four cases where carts shut down, their owners fixed the problems and inspectors allowed them to reopen the next business day, records indicate.

The carts included La Empanada, Electric Earth Café cart, King of Falafel and Tastebuds Concessions.

Full list of food cart inspection results

List of immediately suspended food carts

List of carts needing multiple inspections


WISC-TV found all four operating Tuesday with a clean bill of health.

“Our refrigerator broke down that day,” said Sean Lee, who owns five carts, including Electric Earth. “We didn’t know the fridge wasn’t cold enough — it’s the first time that’s happened to me.”

Lee said he’s given tours to people who tell him food carts aren’t clean, and said the naysayers have come away impressed. Tastebuds Concessions, a hot dog stand inside two Madison Home Depot stores, had a hot water heater problem that the owner was able to fix within two hours.

“I felt pretty silly (when the inspector shut me down) because I check the water every day to make sure we have it,” co-owner Steve Harkins said.

King of Falafel owner Meshel Aldaee said a $1.50 component was all he needed to get his sink back into compliance with health regulations.

“I wasn’t happy about it, but rules are rules,” Aldaee said in a phone interview.

Meanwhile, La Empanada had a handful of violations, with inspectors noting a sink that didn’t work and food being kept too warm in a refrigerator. Owner Ariel Pesce, who’s in his first year operating the business, said he didn’t realize he had to pay the $150 cost of a re-inspection. He said he learned from the inspection.

Library Mall bustled Tuesday with customers ordering at the counters of several food carts.

“There’s a ton of variety, which is amazing,” said Meghan Halder, who works nearby. “Any day, you can pick and choose what you’re feeling.”

Halder said she was confident that the carts were safe to eat from because she could see into them.

“Quite frankly, you can see the operation, versus what’s going on behind a restaurant kitchen (wall),” she said.

Inspection supervisor Cleary said she eats from food carts, and said fellow customers should do several things to make sure the carts look safe.

“You can just peak in the window and see the general cleanliness,” she said. “Are (employees) using tongs or gloves to touch ready-to-eat food, and does the food seem hot when you’re eating it?”