BIG Dog Diner and its owner have been offered a $40,000 fine for allegedly failing to comply with the food standards code over a six month period.
The business and its owner, Kristopher Samuel Stephens, face a combined 109 charges from the City of Greater Bendigo.
Stephens appeared in the Bendigo Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday, and indicated he planned to fight the charges.
The City of Greater Bendigo alleges the business repeatedly ignored its notices to comply, was operating without approval and was in violation of the food standards code at its Marong Road premises.
During a number of inspections, a council officer allegedly found the dishwasher was non-functional, out-of-date milk was in the fridge, there were no used-by dates on some food, food was being stored up to 10 degrees warmer than the maximum temperature required and food was being stored on the floor.
A range of other alleged breaches were also found, including oil waste on the floor, a hole in the ceiling above the salad bar, no food safety program or training for staff and no filter on an exhaust cavity.
The council alleges the hand-wash basin was used to wash utensils, and there was no splash-back behind the sink.
Council inspectors visited the site seven times in July and August last year, reporting that few of the required changes had been implemented. Stephens also allegedly failed to attend a meeting with officers to discuss the issues.
A closure order was served on the business in September but it continued to operate, the court was told.
City of Greater Bendigo prosecutor Louisa Dicker said an inspection earlier this month found a further seven alleged offences at the premises.
She said the business’ refusal to comply with council orders was a concern.
“It’s really the aggravating conduct that’s of concern to the council. There’s repeated offences, orders are served, and no action is taken to bring the premises to compliance,” Ms Dicker said.
The court was told the business was fined $30,000 in February for 44 food standard breaches at its Frankston store, stemming from inspections that took place at the same time as the inspections on the Bendigo store.
The Bendigo store was opened in early 2016. The two stores employ 40 people.
Stephens represented himself in court on Tuesday, and said the issues arose because of management problems when he attempted to open the second store.
“When we opened in Bendigo, both stores suffered due to a lack of management – largely that is the essence of why we’re here,” he said.
“When you read through the charges, and it states that you have sold food past the used-by date, well that’s just not the case at all.
“Everything I have done has gone into this business. I’m not an idiot to think I can sustain my business and family, and employees, by selling substandard food beyond its used-by date.”
Stephens said the issues with fridge temperatures arose from “opening and closing doors”.
The court heard the maximum standard for food temperatures was 5 degrees Celsius. The council alleges the salad bar was at 11 degrees, batter was at 8.5, Parmesan cheese was 6.2, bacon was 5.4 and gherkins were 17.5.
Stephens intended to only plead guilty to the charges of failing to comply with council orders, but not with the food standard code offences.
He said the Bendigo store had been operating at a loss since it opened, but he was proud to feed “thousands and thousands” every week.
“My concern is for my family’s future. My concern is for the jobs I have created. My concerns are very real and legitimate,” Stephens said.
Magistrate Franz Holzer said Stephens was “ambitious” to think he could successfully fight the council charges, and he was likely to face a “six figure” fine if he continued to contest the charges and lost.
Mr Holzer said it was “contemptuous” of Stephens to continue operating after receiving a closure order.
“You’ve had all of these opportunities to fix up these problems, they haven’t been fixed. There’s a closure order and you’ve ignored that,” he said.
“There’s some pretty basic stuff going on here – food on the floor, food not kept at temperatures.
“It takes one death, one fatality. If one person dies – that’s on your watch. It’s on my watch also.”
Stephens and Big Dog Diner will appear in the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court on July 27, where he will inform the court of whether he will accept the $40,000 fine.
If accepted, the matter will return to Bendigo for a plea hearing. If not, Stephens will face a contested hearing later this year.
The City of Greater Bendigo is also seeking $16,932 in court costs.