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Health inspector denies permit for Crawfish & Catfish festival

CUMMING, Ga. — The North Georgia Crawfish & Catfish festival, which was scheduled for June 4 and 5 at the Cumming Fairgrounds, was forced to shut down after health inspectors denied the event vendor a food permit.

The festival’s event coordinator, Michael LaHaye, had gotten two Cajun-style chefs, Jonathan “Johnny Boy” Babineaux and Louisiana Sue, to fly in for the event. Babineaux was set to cook up the crawfish and seafood along with another chef, while Louisiana Sue served as an event consultant. LaHaye had also booked a number of live musical acts, including Ashton Brooke Gill, a Louisiana musician of “American Idol” fame.

With the venue secured, entertainment booked and chefs set to cook the 1,500 pounds of crawfish he’d ordered, LaHaye expected the festival — the first he’d ever organized — to go relatively smoothly. That plan fell apart the morning of June 4, just as the event kicked off.

Crawfish & Catfish Festival cancelled

LaHaye had applied for two temporary food service permits for the event from the Forsyth County Environmental Health Department for the food vendors. The food safety inspection was scheduled for 11 a.m. the day of the event, and the inspector showed up at 10.

Babineaux was setting up his cooking station when the inspector arrived. The second vendor was running late and had not yet arrived at the fairgrounds. Over the course of the inspection, the inspector cited a dozen food safety violations, including boxes of food being left on the ground, improper food storage and improper hand washing stations.

The inspector denied the food service permit for Babineaux’s cooking station, prohibiting him from selling the seafood. LaHaye said that when the other chef arrived at the festival at 10:30 a.m., the inspector told him, “Don’t even bother.”

A representative of the Georgia Department of Public Health District 2, which includes Forsyth County, said the violations were not able to be remedied during the inspection, resulting in the denial. LaHaye disagreed.

“[The crawfish] was on the ground in a box because he’s getting ready to take it out of the box, put it on a tarp and rinse it, then start boiling,” LaHaye said. “Crawfish comes from the ground, it comes from the mud, but it’s in a box, and it’s a temporary situation.”

One of the violations included the absence of a refrigeration truck that had been approved by the health department. LaHaye said the truck had broken down on the way to the event, and he had used ice boxes provided by the Cumming Fairgrounds to keep the crawfish cold.

LaHaye said he scrambled to get food trucks to the festival to avoid having to cancel it, but only one truck came out. He said rumors began spreading on Facebook that the event had been shut down, even though it had not been canceled. Ultimately, LaHaye decided to cancel the festival’s second day.

LaHaye said he heard from nearby food trucks and restaurateurs that health inspections in Forsyth County have a “reputation” for being difficult. He said one of the reasons he had difficulties securing more food trucks to come out was because they knew the health inspector was around. LaHaye said he lost about $35,000 on the festival.

Babineaux said he hadn’t been able to fully set up his station because the inspector showed up early. He said he attempted to fix the issues the inspector noted, but that the inspection lacked reasonable flexibility. Babineaux has experience putting on crawfish boils, and he said he didn’t think the inspector knew how they’re usually operated.

Despite the bad experience with the inspector, Babineaux said he still enjoyed the festival. He said the Cumming police and fairgrounds staff were great to work with.

“I really had a good time, I met a lot of people,” Babineaux said. “I just kind of made the best of it. I know it was hard for Michael, and it was hard for everybody.”

LaHaye was less optimistic about the situation. He said he initially intended for the festival to become an annual event, but he doesn’t think he would do that anymore, especially in Forsyth County. He said he may have to set up a GoFundMe to pay for expenses from the festival.

Reach Jake Drukman at 770-847-8334. Follow him on Twitter @DrukmanJake.