Lisa Chow is the economics reporter at WNYC. She tries to explore in her stories surprising aspects of New York’s many economies—in plain view or hidden, in neighborhoods or sectors.
If a restaurant fails its health inspection, you might think it had rats, mice or roaches. But sometimes, all it takes is a bunch of seemingly minor violations involving something as simple as the scoops used to take ice cubes out of a bin.
“Ice scoops can never be kept in the ice, ever,” said Neil Kleinberg, who owns Community Food and Juice, a restaurant near Columbia University.
The rationale is if you leave the scoop in the ice machine, it’ll get buried under falling ice, and then you'd have to dig it out with your potentially dirty hands, contaminating ice cubes that could later be chilling someone's Diet Coke.
These types of violations can add up quickly and with a new restaurant grading system on the horizon, restaurants may have to work harder to keep their doors open.
Later this month, the city’s Health Department will start issuing letter grades to the nearly 24,000 restaurants in New York's five boroughs. The A, B, and C grades must be posted next to the restaurants’ entrance and will be based on how the food establishments fare on city health inspections.
Kleinberg, who supports the city's move toward a public letter grade system, took me on a tour of his 120-seat restaurant. In the basement he pointed out other Health Department rules. For example, signs reading “Employees must wash hands before returning to work” have to be on display in bathrooms, and bathroom doors must have a self-closing hinge. A bathroom door can never be left open because flies could move in and out and then contaminate your chocolate cake.
Kleinberg says even though these rules sound technical, he understands why they exist. Violations create potential health hazards, which is exactly what the city is trying to protect customers against. “We know what the Health Department is looking for. If we're going to get constantly violated for the same mistake, and we haven't been smart enough to fix it in the first place, then that’s our fault,” Kleinberg said. “I’ve been cooking for 30 years. If we don’t know those rules by now then we’re dumb.”
Officials say more than a quarter of New York's restaurants are in serious or consistent violation of the health code. And with people eating out more often, the number of hospitalizations related to food poisoning from restaurants has continued to grow — they're up more than 10 percent from 2000 to 2008. The idea behind public letter grades is to shift the motivation for restaurants, from doing just enough to pass an inspection to striving for an A grade or risk losing customers.
But even Kleinberg, who works hard to follow the rules, is going to have to work even harder under the new system with a public grade looming.
In Community Food and Juice’s most recent health inspection, the restaurant received 10 violations, amounting to 44 points, which under the new system would give the restaurant a C grade.
I showed this report to Kleinberg. He said the restaurant had a problem with its walk-in refrigerator, which wasn’t keeping food at the proper temperature.
The restaurant also got violation points for a defective dishwasher, whose water temperature was two degrees lower than the city’s rule, and for not being “vermin proof.”
Bill Cooper, who’s a chef at Community Food and Juice, said the restaurant doesn’t have any vermin, but inspectors saw a crack in the sidewalk that vermin could use to get into the restaurant’s delivery entrance.
“There's honestly nothing we can do about it right now,” Cooper said, adding that the restaurant is working with the building owners and city. “But it's still our violation.”
Downtown in Greenwich Village, Jesse Schenker chef and owner of Recette Restaurant, which opened earlier this year, said he’s against posting letter grades because he believes inspections are often subjective.
“It's timing. It's luck. It's human error,” Schenker said. “Some inspectors are really really into their job, or you have the guys that are a little more lax, so it's inconsistent.”
And Schenker doesn't think customers will understand what an A, B, or C means in his world of ice scoops and self-closing doors. Instead, if the city really wants restaurants to clean up, Schenker says, raise the fines.
“That's enough of an incentive. Trust me,” he said.
Well, at least there's agreement on one thing. When the bottom line suffers, restaurants respond. And that’s what the Health Department is counting on.