International Pocket Cafe temporarily closed its Kingston Emporium location from April 2 to April 9 for cleaning after customers reported symptoms associated with norovirus.
According to Joseph Wendelken, public information officer for the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH), a number of people contacted RIDOH’s Center for Food Protection after eating at International Pocket Cafe, reporting symptoms that are typically associated with norovirus.
Norovirus is a highly contagious illness that Wendelken said spreads easily in food establishments, especially when food and water are contaminated. Symptoms of norovirus include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain or cramps.
Wendelken said that RIDOH first received a report about illness after eating at International Pocket Cafe on March 25. However, he could not verify exactly how many people have been infected since many people who get sick after eating contaminated food choose not to report to health departments.
Wendelken confirmed that the restaurant voluntarily closed its doors from April 2 to April 9 for renovation. He also said that International Pocket Cafe hired a consultant as well as a professional cleaning company to thoroughly clean the establishment.
RIDOH food safety records show that International Pocket Cafe has historically failed to meet food safety regulations during inspections.
Multiple inspections throughout 2018 reported that the restaurant has previously violated rules that require proper food date marking, the cleanliness of both food-contact and non-food-contact surfaces, meeting proper cold holding temperatures, properly storing food items, identifying and using toxic substances and meeting personal cleanliness standards.
Public reports dating back to 2016 state that the restaurant lacked proper storage of utensils, adequate handwashing facilities and proper disposal of sewage and wastewater. There are no records of health and safety violations at the store’s other location in Middletown, Rhode Island.
Despite these previous violations, it is currently unknown exactly what, if any, mispractice resulted in the spread of norovirus. In addition, Wendelken said that RIDOH is currently not certain if a particular food item was contaminated or if multiple ingredients were.
International Pocket Cafe owner David Boutros said that the voluntary closing allowed for the restaurant to buy new equipment and undergo renovations. Those who passed by the establishment last week noticed that various appliances have been moved out of the store, and new ones entering.
“We have remodeled,” Boutros said. “We have brand-new equipment, as well as new foods such as new soft serve ice cream and new desserts.”
International Pocket Cafe reopened to the public on Wednesday, April 10. Boutros said that the spread of the virus may not have come from any problem with the restaraunt.
“The virus is not from bad food or bad refrigerating,” Boutros said. “Norovirus can come if someone sneezes in
Boutros also confirmed that during renovations he replaced all food items, power-washed the windows of the store and thoroughly cleaned other surfaces to be extra safe.
“We’ve been here for over 30 years, and we are one of the most popular restaurants in the emporium,” Boutros said. “We didn’t want to take any chances of people getting sick.”
Some students were disappointed that such a popular restaurant on campus had to close temporarily, but they understood the need to do so.
“[International Pocket Cafe temporarily closing] is really unfortunate because it’s a small local restaurant, but hopeful the issue can be easily resolved and they can reopen soon,” sophomore and restaurant regular Grace Castillo said before the establishment reopened.
Myra Lendrum, a freshman, said that she wasn’t even aware that the restaurant closed, but is glad they did in order to create a cleaner establishment.
“They taste good, but norovirus is not good,” Lendrum said.
International Pocket Cafe serves traditional Mediterranean fare such as baklava, shawarma and falafel, as well as traditional American cuisine such as meatball subs, BLTs, french fries and Buffalo wings. The establishment has been family owned and operated since 1990 in the Emporium.