A cleaner Pimlico is back on track

Under Magna executive, days of hygiene violations become a thing of the past

Preakness Stakes

May 16, 2007|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,Sun reporter

Last May, four days before the Preakness, Baltimore health inspectors cited Pimlico Race Course for rat, mouse and roach infestations in its kitchens and food stands.

So the city health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, went to Pimlico 48 hours before the nationally televised race, carrying the threat of shutting down some of the food operations.

Sharfstein found neither filth nor rodents.

The sudden turnaround at Pimlico was nearly as remarkable as Street Sense's recent come-from-behind Kentucky Derby victory.

This month, city inspectors again found no serious health code violations at Pimlico, which for a single day each year becomes Baltimore's biggest restaurant, serving more than 100,000 people and bringing in about $700,000 in food and beverage revenues.

The man behind the rapid makeover is Klaus Panholzer, an Austrian hospitality expert brought in by Pimlico's owner to improve the track's food quality and clean up the 136-year-old track.

"Just because it's old doesn't mean it has to be dirty," said Panholzer, 36, Magna Entertainment Corp.'s senior executive for corporate hospitality. "We totally cleaned it up."

In 2000, Panholzer was hired by Frank Stronach, Magna's chairman and a fellow Austrian who indirectly continues to be a source of power for the young executive. Panholzer frequently dips into a cooler in his Pimlico office for a can of Frank's Energy Drink, a new Stronach product.

Sharfstein said he was impressed by Panholzer's commitment to quality.

"He was very eager to show us the improvements," Sharfstein said. "He gave us confidence."

Panholzer is always on the go and, despite his Arnold Schwarzenegger delivery of English, his talking rarely slows. And his polished fashion sense reveals a meticulousness that seems well-suited for the job of polishing Pimlico: razor thin strips of stubble form an outline of a goatee around his mouth, and his angular sideburns point straight ahead.

In 2005, Panholzer joined Magna's Maryland Turf Caterers operation, which the company had acquired in September of that year from a private operator. A month later, Panholzer began to overhaul the Laurel Park and Pimlico operations, despite what he says was institutional resistance.

"Nobody likes change," he said. "My mission: clean this place up. Make sure it goes in the right direction."

Panholzer, a former hospitality expert for Formula One car racing events, said he is part of Magna's efforts to infuse Maryland's horse racing industry with a youthful vigor that Magna hopes will get a boost from slot machines.

His efforts - aided by his high school friend and business partner, Helmut Pichler - are aimed at improving the food and beverage operations at Pimlico and Laurel, and his vision appears to be paying off.

Revenues up

According to Magna's annual report, its revenues in Maryland were 4.6 percent higher last year than in the previous year "due to increased food and beverage revenues from Maryland Turf Caterers."

Panholzer said those revenues will be even higher if Pimlico prohibits Preakness fans from bringing their own beer. For now, he expects to improve operations with greater efficiency.

"When they came in, they focused a lot on cleanliness," said Andre Moore, 63, known simply as Chef Andre.

Moore has worked in the Pimlico kitchens for 45 years, rising through the ranks to head chef. He is second in command to William Hughes, 35, of Highlandtown and is the former chef at Manhattan Grill in Perry Hall.

Moore said the biggest improvement has been the emphasis on cleanliness.

"I used to be scared to open the door [of the kitchen] in the morning," said Moore, who lives in Pikesville.

He was worried about mice.

"I'm not scared anymore," he said. "In all my 45 years here, it's never been better."

It could not have gotten much worse.

Three food areas were temporarily closed until rat, mouse, roach and ant infestations were fixed. Twelve of Pimlico's dining locations were cited for serious violations last year.

Some of the inspections occurred in March 2006, before the track opened for the season. Panholzer said inactivity and inattention - he was focusing first on Laurel - led to some of the problems at small food stands that were used only during the Preakness and were situated near horse barns, where rodents are difficult to control.

The most worrisome problem occurred May 16, 2006, in the first-floor prep kitchen, one of the main areas of food preparation for Preakness. A health inspector ordered Pimlico to eliminate "heavy rat infestation" and "moderate mice infestation" in the rear freezer and storage areas.

The reports worried Sharfstein and his top deputy, Olivia Farrow.

"They feed a lot of people out of that kitchen, so we wanted to make sure the infestation was taken care of," Sharfstein said. "There was urgency, but not panic."

When Panholzer learned of the inspector's findings, he called Sharfstein and told him to come see for himself that the concerns had been addressed.

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