March 8, 2012
By GLENN COLLINS
It was not as if the New York health department had threatened the city’s 24,000 restaurateurs with posting a scarlet letter — or even a skull and crossbones — in their windows. But dozens of restaurant operators descended on City Hall on Wednesday to vent their ire at the letter-grading system inaugurated 19 months ago by the department to promote food safety.
A crowd of more than 300 people jammed the Council chamber and more than 80 had signed up to testify at a hearing on the city’s grading system.
“Restaurant operators express frustration, anger and confusion with an inspection system that they believe is punitive and shaming,” said Andrew Rigie, executive vice president of the Greater New York City Chapters of the New York State Restaurant Association.
Or, as Dimitri Kafchitsas put it, a food-safety visit from the city often “feels like a criminal raid and not an inspection.” Mr. Kafchitsas, president of Pan Gregorian Enterprises, a trade group of 1,000 restaurants in the five boroughs, said that in the inspection process, “there is a lack of sensitivity.”
The long-anticipated hearing had been scheduled, the Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, said, to respond to “a wave of complaints” from restaurateurs about the A, B and C grades. Ms. Quinn cited the results of a survey by the Council, an online questionnaire posted on its Web site to seek restaurateurs’ opinions, which drew more than 1,300 completed submissions.
“A majority of restaurateurs that earned an A said that the letter-grading system was poor,” Ms. Quinn said of the questionnaires. “This isn’t about getting complaints from those who are getting B’s and C’s.”
She said 68 percent of the A restaurants reported that letter-grading had increased the cost of operating their restaurants.
“We spend all day in court trying to waive the fines,” Herb Wetanson, the owner of the Dallas BBQ restaurant chain. The inspectors, he added, “come into our premises as enemies; it’s wrong.”
But it was, however, Day 2 in the battle of the surveys. On Tuesday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg cited the findings of a different survey, from Baruch College at the City University of New York, showing that 91 percent of New Yorkers approve of the restaurant grading system and 88 percent consider letter grades when choosing one.
Dr. Thomas A. Farley, the city’s health commissioner, defended the Bloomberg administration when he testified at the Council hearing. “My job is to protect the health of New Yorkers,” Dr. Farley said, adding that “no restaurant likes to be inspected.”
The department, he said, was “very excited about the success of the program so far,” referring to the letter-grading system. He cited department statistics showing that 72 percent of the city’s restaurants had earned the blue A grade, up from 65 percent a year ago.
Dr. Farley added that salmonella infections, an indicator of food-borne illness, fell 14 percent during the first full year of letter grading, to the city’s lowest level in 20 years.
Ms. Quinn said she was concerned that the inspections had “become a revenue generator for the city at the expense of restaurant owners,” adding that fines had increased 145 percent since fiscal year 2006.
Dr. Farley said of the restaurants that “the worst-performing 20 percent are paying two-thirds of the fines.”
But restaurant operators in the chamber greeted parts of the commissioner’s testimony with jeers, then were rebuked into silence, and some offered their own experiences with inspectors’ visits.
Andreas Koutsoudakis, a lawyer for the Pan Gregorian Enterprises trade group, said members were concerned that inspectors abused their power, issuing punitive violations for minor infractions. One operator got a seven-point deduction, Mr. Koutsoudakis said, “for napkins that were half an inch shorter than the fork and the knife.”
Beyond that, the inspection process “is inconsistent and unfair and at times adversarial,” said Scott Rosenberg, an owner of Sushi Yasuda, a critically acclaimed restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. Restaurateurs “are playing with a stacked deck,” he said, adding, “If you follow one inspector’s admonishment, the next inspector will challenge that.”
And the hearings for challenging grades “often feel like a game of Russian roulette — if you get in the wrong chamber, you lose,” said Kevin O’Donoghue, a lawyer who represents restaurants and bars in the city.
Many council members offered specific suggestion for reforming the current system. Over all, though, said Robert Bookman, a Manhattan lawyer who represents hundreds of restaurants.