By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The city’s arbitrary system of restaurant health inspections is hard for eatery owners to swallow, but a series of reforms approved by the City Council should make it a lot easier to stomach, Councilman David Greenfield predicted.
Greenfield (D-Borough Park-Bensonhurst-Midwood) said he’s satisfied that the legislative package passed Monday by the council will make the system fairer for restaurant owners who have complained bitterly about fines they deemed unfair and crippling to their businesses.
“We can protect public health without harming businesses, and this legislation will do just that,” Greenfield said at a press conference at Jerry’s Café in lower Manhattan alongside Council Speaker Christine Quinn on July 8.
The now-famous letter grading system is staying, but the council is pushing a host of changes in the way restaurants are inspected by the city’s Department of Health.
Among the proposed reforms:
- An across-the-board reduction of fines for violations.
- A requirement that inspectors distribute informational pamphlets to eatery owners prior to the first inspection visit. The pamphlet will include guidelines on exactly what inspectors will be looking for.
- The establishment of an ombudsman’s office to deal with restaurant owners who have complaints about the inspection process or the grades they received.
- Relief from violations relating to the physical layout or structure of a restaurant.
“With this package, we’re taking steps to ensure that the restaurant inspection process is fair. The bills improve the lot of struggling restaurant owners while preserving a system that is valuable to – and more importantly protects the safety of – New Yorkers,” Quinn said.
“The restaurant industry, with its foundation of small businesses, is the lifeblood of New York City and our legislation includes important measures so that restaurants can continue to thrive without jeopardizing public health,” Quinn said.
Greenfield said he was particularly pleased with the reforms because he believes they are a direct result of complaints he and his colleagues have received from restaurant owners. One restaurant owner in Greenfield’s district told him he was hit with a fine for having a wet floor after he had just washed the floor. Another eatery owner was reportedly issued a fine for food that was too hot even though it just came out of the oven.
Greenfield charged that under the current system “food safety is no longer the focus” of the inspection and that the emphasis has shifted to collecting revenue for the city. As previously reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dr. Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner, told council members at a hearing that the city expects to collect an estimated $40 million in restaurant fines this year.
“The complaints I have personally heard from restaurant owners in my district made it clear that the current inspection system requires a serious overhaul in order to restore fairness for all parties,” Greenfield said.
It remains to be seen if restaurant owners think the changes will go far enough. Lee Moudatsos, manager of Mike’s Hinsch’s Greek-American Diner on Fifth Avenue in Bay Ridge, said he’s hopeful the new system will work. “Hopefully, it will be better,” he said. Mike’s received an “A” grade when it was inspected by the Dept. of Health in mid-June. The Moudatsos family owns five restaurants in New York City.
While he’s happy with the “A” Mike’s received, Moudatsos said the inspection system needs a serious overhaul. “It became more like a business for the city, collecting the fines. The fines are too much. The city makes it hard for restaurant owners to stay in business,” he told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
One problem is that the inspectors are inconsistent, he charged. “One inspector will tell you one thing and then a new inspector who comes the next time will tell you something totally the opposite. And you went crazy trying to put in what the first inspector said,” he said.
Restaurant owners sweat out each inspection, according to Moudatsos, who said the difference between an “A” and a “B” can affect an eatery’s bottom line. “If you had an ‘A’ before and then you get a ‘B,’ you could lose business,” he said, adding that the owners get very nervous during the inspections. "Your heart is pounding out of your chest," he said.