City Council Challenges Restaurant Grading System

Restaurant-owners gave the mayor an earful over food inspections.

The City Council on Wednesday invited them to share war stories about unfair rules and inconsistent inspectors. Many filled Council chambers, eager to talk.

Outside the hearings, Irene LoRe the former owner of Aunt Suzie’s in Brooklyn, said onerous bureaucracy was one of the main reasons she closed the Italian restaurant in 2011 after more than 25 years, even though she had recently received an A.

“If they went to Italy, they’d close all the restaurants in Italy,” she said. “At a trattoria or a foccaceria, all those beautiful vegetables held at room temperature – and the mozzarella, the fresh mozzarella, should never be cold. Never. That’s some kind of mortal sin.”

Speaker Christine Quinn and four different committees grilled Health officials as restaurant owners shared their war stories. Quinn said she's concerned inspections are inconsistent and the department is too focused on raising revenue through fines.

"There seems to be a lack of fairness and an abundance of inconsistency throughout the food inspection process," Quinn said. "It really makes you ask yourself: is revenue generation the point here?"

Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to upstage the hearing on Tuesday, by releasing a study saying food-borne illness has declined, since the restaurant grades went into place 20 months ago. The city also says that increasing numbers of restaurants are getting A's — currently 72 percent — and that revenue from fines has started to decline, as restaurant owners institute better practices.

The mayor's office also released a survey showing 90 percent of city residents approve of the letter grades.

But the City Council released its own survey on Wednesday. It showed 85 percent of restaurant owners say the letter grading system is "Poor" or "Fair." Less than 5 percent say it's "Very Good" or "Excellent."

The Health Department countered that the city council the survey is unsound because it is not a random sampling of restaurant owners, and people can take it multiple times.

Quinn and the Council acknowledged the survey is "informal" and "not scientific," but they nonetheless trumpeted its findings.

Not all owners criticized the city. Wylie Dufresne, owner of the much-acclaimed WD-50 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, said food inspections and the letter grade system benefit restaurants and customers alike.

“I think for my staff, passing by that letter grade each day on their way to work, helps keep it front of mind for them, helps them to realize that they’re part of the solution, part of the process,” Dufresne said.

Council members said they support letter grades in general, but they want to improve the relationship between restaurants and the city.

Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley testified that there’s a complaint line and an independent tribunal owners can reach out to discuss problems.

“If every restaurant got an A, and there was no revenues at all from fines, no one would be happier than me,” Farley said.