Restaurant inspection program isn’t making the grade, says City Council

According to the City Council, the restaurant inspection program currently in place isn’t making the grade, prompting members to introduce a legislative package that will improve the system on Monday, July 8.

Back in 2010, the Department of Health rolled out a letter grade system with the intention of making sure that restaurants were in compliance with the city’s codes, in order to help the public make informed decisions about where to eat. The letter grade system also aimed at reducing food-borne illnesses.

As a result, restaurant owners were subject to more inspections, often drowning them in fines for menial infractions.

The new bills intend to relieve that burden by: instating across-the-board fine reductions; creating a fine waiver for restaurant owners and operators to contest the initial inspection’s findings at the Administrative Tribunal and eventually receive an A; creating an opportunity for restaurant owners and operators to request a consultative and ungraded inspection for educational purposes; establishing an office to receive and address comments, complaints and compliments; developing an inspection code of conduct pamphlet that inspectors will give to all restaurant owners and operators before the start of an initial inspection; creating an advisory board to ensure ongoing and systemic review of the restaurant inspection program; increasing and improving the reporting of restaurant inspection data; and relieving violations relating to the physical layout or structure of the restaurant.

“To help small businesses grow and succeed, health inspectors must work with restaurants owners rather than attempt to catch them off-guard and penalize them,” said Councilmember Vincent Gentile. “My bill develops an inspection code of conduct pamphlet based on standards that exist in the restaurant inspection process. As inspectors will be required to distribute the pamphlet to all restaurant owners and operators prior to an inspection; this bill ensures that everyone is aware of how inspections ought to proceed.”

Councilmember David Greenfield concurred. “We can protect public health without harming businesses, and this legislation will do just that,” he said. “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. On behalf of hard-working restaurant owners who contribute so much to our city, I am thrilled that the Council is taking real steps to bring about meaningful change.”

Steve Oliver, who owns Chadwick’s Restaurant and Pipin’s Pub in Bay Ridge, said that the biggest problem he had with the system is the lack of consistency.

“If you don’t have the right person walking in the door, it can be the demise of a restaurant sitting on a letter grade it doesn’t deserve,” he explained, adding that inspectors are not consistent in what they look for and sometimes two different inspectors with two different agendas will come the same day. “Most times on the first inspection, you won’t get an A because they want to generate money.”

But Oliver said that he did understand the need for the letter grade system.

“I understand the need to generate money, but I don’t understand the erratic nature of the inspector walking through the door,” he contended. “It’s unfair the way the system is. I know it’s a problem amongst many restaurants.”

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