It was a restaurant operator's worst nightmare.
When a passerby filmed rats scampering around a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in New York in February, the fallout was immediate and widespread.
The video was played and replayed on TV stations and computer screens around the world for days following the incident. The restaurant where the video was shot closed permanently, and the inspector who had given the restaurant a passing grade on a health inspection just days before the video was filmed resigned her position.
Same-store sales at Yum Brands Inc., the parent company of KFC and Taco Bell, declined 3 percent for the quarter following the release of the video. The New York City Department of Health stepped up its restaurant inspection efforts around the city in the wake of the incident and temporarily closed dozens of restaurants for failing inspections.
Although that situation was unusual in the amount of attention it garnered, it could happen to anyone, pest control experts say, especially in urban areas such as New York.
"There are a lot of rats in New York, and familiarity breeds contempt," said Mark Sheperdigian, vice president of technical services for Troy, Mich.-based Rose Pest Solutions.
"They're just rats, until someone puts them on TV," Sheperdigian said. "Then they are RATS!!"
Once there's an infestation, Shepherdigian said, it requires a concerted effort on the part of the operator to get the problem under control.
"The best thing you can have is a solid pest management provider working with a cooperative client," he said. "I would not recommend they attempt rat control on their own, or on the cheap, because the rats will eat your lunch."
Control takes a joint effort
An effective rodent control program generally starts with inspecting the building to see where rodents are getting in. Rats can squeeze though a hole the size of a quarter, while mice can get in through a hole the size of a dime.
Uncapped drain pipes also can provide easy access to rodents, experts say.
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"Most sewer systems are full of rodents," said Dale Kaukeinen, a pest control expert and consultant to rodent control product supplier D-Con. "If a restaurant has a garbage disposal and is putting a lot of food material into the drain, it will support rats and cockroaches."
Keeping the Dumpster area clean and the Dumpster lid closed is critical, Kaukeinen said, as is keeping wet garbage in bags.
"Garbage is a wonderful, well balanced food for rats and mice," he said. "They have a very good sense of smell, and they will be attracted to those areas where there is garbage."
Restaurants and other business owners can use these tips to prevent rodent infestations:
- Seal any hole or crack larger than 1/4-inch. Large openings should be stuffed with steel wool or wire mesh before sealing.
- Place tight-fitting 1/4-inch hardware cloth on all vents and exterior openings.
- Install a tight-fitting weather strip on the bottom of all doors.
- Remove any piles of debris that may be near the building. These piles can provide shelter and can attract rodents.
- Trim tree branches away from the exterior of the facility. Rodents are great climbers and can access the vulnerable areas on the roof via nearby trees.
- Store garbage in lid-sealed containers, and never place bags of trash on the ground.
- Store food in sealed containers, and place it on shelves that could be difficult for pests to access.
Source: Terminix International Co.
Keeping windows and doors sealed tightly is important, as is keeping door sweeps in good condition.
"Often the back doors are well sealed, but the front-door weather strips are wide open," said Stoy Hedges, director of technical services with Memphis-based Terminix International Co. "It takes a concerted effort to locate those places."
Cutting back low-hanging branches can help prevent rats from getting in though roof vents, and keeping landscaping to a minimum, especially close to the building, is important as well. Rats prefer to live in burrows, and thick shrubbery around a building can help attract them.
"Because they want things quiet and undisturbed, the best thing you can do for a rat is to put down heavy shrubs and thick ivy," Sheperdigian said. "If you do that, the rats will appreciate it."
Once an infestation occurs, it's important to regain control quickly. A pair of rodents can produce 2,000 offspring within eight or 9 months, making it important to get ahead of the rodents' reproductive cycle.
Treatment of a rodent infestation generally involves the use of traps over several days in order to knock the population back as quickly as possible. Once the problem is under control, experts say, operators need to work with their pest control provider to prevent future problems.
Rodent infestations usually can be traced to poor sanitation and a lack of organization in the restaurant. If the restaurant doesn't do its part, it probably will not have success, no matter how many hours the pest control company puts into it, experts say.
"If you have mice, they are in your facility for a reason," Hedges said "The best thing you can do is ask your pest control company what you can do to help"