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Sunday, May 29, 2022

You wouldn't necessarily call it a full house, but for a weeknight with no major athletic events, it isn't a bad crowd at Calico Jack's. Customers cluster around the bar with slightly overflowing glasses of beer, and employees pause to chat over the twangs of "Life is a Highway."

On April 28, however, the beer was not flowing, and the only visitors were cockroaches, flies and a health inspector.

Calico Jack's reopened April 29, the day after the restaurant failed a routine health inspection from the Division of Hotels and Restaurants with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. The inspection information cited 27 critical violations and 28 non-critical violations.

Violations included the presence of cockroaches and flies in the kitchen, slime buildup in an ice machine, employees not washing their hands and grease buildup on the oven, stove and flat grill.

Calico Jack's was allowed to reopen the following day after the health inspector's office approved the restaurant's conditions.

Owner Vinod Bajaj, who took over within the past 10 years, said the staff cleaned the restaurant the day of the inspection, and the staff's cleaning training will be reinforced. He has since hired a different pest control company than the one Calico Jack's had been previously using.

"It's probably the cleanest place now to eat," Bajaj said.

Bajaj said that while it's hard to pinpoint what went wrong, he thinks the building's age and the restaurant's lack of a kitchen manager contributed to the unsatisfactory conditions.

He said he is in the process of looking for a kitchen manager. He is also renovating the restaurant in pieces. The second and third floors are currently closed for renovations.

These changes may not be enough, though. Stephen Solorzano, a UF engineering junior who has never been to Calico Jack's, said he would be skeptical about eating there after hearing the reports. He would want to see the restaurant for himself because even though it was just cleaned, the staff might fall back into neglecting cleanliness.

"Old habits die hard," Solorzano said.

But those who have been sitting at the orange and blue tables for decades are still coming back. Jackie Kerr, a lifelong Gainesville resident and UF graduate, has been eating at Calico Jack's for the past 20 years. She and her husband, Bob, go there almost every night. Other regulars even save seats for them.

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Kerr started going to Calico Jack's because it was in the neighborhood and some of her neighbors were regulars. Her late neighbor, who encouraged the Kerrs to visit Calico Jack's more often, had a gold plaque on the cabinet above her designated seat.

Now, Kerr and her husband come for the people and her four favorite dishes: wings, oysters, Philly cheesesteaks, and the half-pound burger and fries that are $3 on Wednesdays.

And they're going to keep coming.

"One health department report does not make an establishment," Kerr said. She thought previous coverage of the failed inspection blew the situation out of proportion. She said she hasn't noticed a change in the restaurant's appearance, and the staff still works hard.

"I know for a fact these people try their damnedest," Kerr said.

Bajaj said he hasn't seen his business affected by the failed inspection. He sees it as a challenge and part of the business. He takes responsibility for the violations and said he wants people to feel comfortable with the restaurant so they can enjoy what he calls "the CJ's hospitality."

"The buck stops with me," Bajaj said.

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