While there are no statistics yet available for exactly how much restaurant owners stand to lose with a C, the fear of a C grade is palpable at the Administrative Tribunal, which is on the 11th floor of a cramped office building near the World Trade Center. The waiting room manages to combine the drudgery of the DMV with the anonymous dread of an STD clinic. The room has 16 rows of interlocking chairs and, at midday, they're mostly filled. People are generally occupied with a newspaper or the important business of foot tapping and cheek puffing. The more prepared go over fat folders of documents to prepare their defenses, or just hold them in their lap, drawing strength from their weight. Every few minutes, a clerk at the front counter calls out a restaurant address and an owner's name and sends him or her scuttling off to one of the little hearing rooms in back. The room makes a commercial for The Price is Right feel like a luxury getaway. The walls and support pillars are scuffed. Signs say you can't eat, and no one does. You can't talk on your phone, but doing so doesn't seem to land anyone in trouble. I talk to the owner of a pizza place in Queens (who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous), who says his appointment for the tribunal was at 10 a.m. Although he arrived at 9:30 a.m., it's now nearing one in the afternoon, and he isn't sure when his case will be heard. According to Pizza Guy, he was sucked into food court after his father passed away a few months before, leaving him a restaurant he had no desire to operate. He'd prefer to sell it as soon as possible. When his restaurant's address is finally called, he bolts to the front to receive further instruction. "From what I've seen, this is one of the better agencies in New York," Pizza Guy says, better than what he remembers at the DMV. Next, the owner of a recently opened cafe (who also would rather not be identified by name) explains that when the inspector visited his restaurant, there were plastic bags filled with construction debris that hadn't been removed. He says the inspector declared there was food in the bags, a violation, but refused to open them up and look when challenged. His restaurant is in the B range, but Cafe Guy says, "A B [grade] is telling the consumer there's some inferior situation going on." After 20 years in the restaurant business, and payments to a consultant in order to ensure his cafe is up to code, he declares, "I would eat off the floor in my place." He thinks the system is too complicated. If it takes him hours to figure it out, how is a tourist supposed to understand it? The system counts critical and minor violations towards a restaurant's final grade, which means it's possible to have an A with evidence of rodents, and a B when enough bathroom doors don't close on their own. There is also the problem of milk temperature. If someone takes milk out of the fridge for five minutes, it could easily rise to a temperature that will put it into the violation range on an inspection, even though that milk was going right back in the fridge and was at the right temperature a minute ago. Inspections are inevitably snapshots, nailing down judgments across a hundred fine lines.
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The repercussions for inspectors who screw up are also unclear, Cafe Guy explains, and he suspects a sort of "juking the stats" of food inspections to raise revenue. Food court will bring a man to think many things he wouldn't otherwise. ------
Restaurant owners outside the tribunal have similar criticisms. "The inspector used to come in, and you didn't get nervous when they walked in the door," Vinnie Mazzone says. He owns Vinnie's Chicken Masters, in Sheepshead Bay, where he masters chicken by rubbing it in spices, frying the hell out of it and serving it hot with thumb-thick steak fries. His restaurant has an A grade, and he was one of the few restaurant owners who would speak on the record with his full name. For Mazzone, the notion of having to put up a grade is an affront to his pride. "I take it as an insult," he says. "I don't need anyone to grade my store." Mazzone also finds the system needlessly complex, with scoring arbitrary depending "on time of day." But given the many chances that restaurants are given to improve their score before grading, he says, "If you wind up with a C, there's something seriously wrong with your place." There's no one like an epidemiologist to put the concerns of restaurant owners in perspective. "I'm not going to apologize that the general public may not know the nuances between an 'A' and a 'B,'" Dr. Mel Kramer says. "And let me tell you something: These things are not mission impossible." Kramer has a PhD in environmental health and a masters in public health. He runs EHA Consulting Group, which handles inspections for facilities like hospitals and corporate dining rooms, which aren't covered by the Health Department. What's more worrisome to Kramer- and it's worth noting his job is to worry about this sort of thing-is the fact that New York City's system for reporting foodborne outbreaks of illnesses pales to that operated by the state of Minnesota. He also mentions a less-than-reassuring study from the Journal of Food Protection that "basically said that fairly large numbers of food workers admitted to working more than one shift when they actively had vomiting or diarrhea." According to Kramer, the fines and settlement offers of the new grading system are not extraordinary "in an environment where you're trying to cut cost and maximize efficiency," adding that "we do the same with parking tickets." Although there can be cases where minor violations tip the scale and change a grade more than a major one might, Kramer says, "That's generally not the case." What matters is not quibbling, but the sum of the effort. "Anything that elevates the level of sanitation to the public? is positive," Kramer says. To date, the city has inspected most of its 24,000 restaurants. In a report after the first six months of the grading program, the city said "of restaurants that scored in the C range on their first inspection, 72 percent improved enough to earn an A or B on the second." ------
Kimlau Square is a little park in the southern section of Manhattan's Chinatown. Follow the stern gaze from the statue of Lin Zexu and, in about 40 feet, you'll hit Dim Sum Go Go. The restaurant is a New York magazine "Critic's Pick," and has received a recommendation by the Michelin Guide every year since 2007. The week I visited, it had a less-prestigious distinction, having earned the worst score of any sit-down restaurant in Manhattan. Officially, the restaurant is not yet graded. Still, it had racked up 91 points (this score has since been disputed and lowered to 47). It had seven critical violations, including: "Eggs found dirty/cracked; liquid, frozen or powdered eggs not pasteurized," "Live roaches present in facility's food and/ or non-food areas" and "Food not protected from potential source of contamination during storage, preparation, transportation, display or service." I sat at my white tablecloth during the mid-afternoon lull and started in on my pot of tea, propelled by a half-baked rationale about the fortifying power of hot liquids and antioxidants. I had three dipping saucers, one with red-flecked vinegar, another with a leaky mix of ginger and scallion and a third with oily chunks the color and consistency of jerky. I think, maybe, it was shrimp. I checked off the box for 10 assorted meat dumplings on a paper menu left on the tabletop. The waiter informed me that the dumplings would be some combination of pork and seafood. In a matter of minutes, he returned with a cylindrical bamboo steamer. After a voosh of escaping vapor, I discovered 10 plump designs, each as vivid as coral blooms. There were pink bows and translucent yellow purses. A rubbery chunk of pork was topped by a dumpling button, which in turn had a sprinkling of orange fish roe. I had no idea what sort of meat was contained inside of each little dumpling. I glanced at the Chinese business lunchers and wiped-out tourists as they munched away. The inspection score was bad, really bad. But not bad enough to close the place down. I was hungry, and a system for restaurant improvement relying on simplified public assumptions didn't have much to say about that. Food is good enough to eat, or it isn't. And anyway, it all looked sooo good.
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