Grilling the Restaurant Inspectors

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New city council bills require inspector etiquette training

No one wants to eat at a restaurant with a letter "B" or "C" in the window. Even worse, is the "grade pending." But as restaurateurs and many New Yorkers know, there's more to New York City restaurant health inspections than just a letter in the window. Restaurants complain that problem starts with the inspectors themselves.

The new bills passed in the City Council are designed to improve the process of inspections for small businesses in general, but the New York Restaurant Association says will help restaurants as well. The first bill aims at minimizing fines. The New York City Department of Health, along with other city departments that inspect small businesses, will evaluate their list of health inspections, and any violations that do not pose a threat to food-safety or sanitation will be reduced to a warning.

The other two bills are specifically aimed at the inspectors themselves: One would require inspectors to give restaurateurs a bill of rights that claims that they can complain if an inspector is not doing his or her job well. The final bill, sponsored by City Council Member Gale Brewer, requires etiquette training for inspectors that aims to reduce the issues associated with inconsistency from inspector to inspector, as well as language barrier issues for ethnic restaurants.

"Restaurants want to be a partner with the department of health, and they want to be healthy, but inspections have to be done in a way that's more partnership and not frivolous summonses," said Brewer. "Its not just training but consistent training. Restaurants have described inspectors telling them the sign is in the wrong place, and the next inspector would say 'no, it has to be over here.'"

So, who are these inspectors? According to the latest Department of Health "What to Expect When You're Inspected" brochure published in 2010, they earn bachelor's degrees with significant coursework in science. The inspectors "undergo months of intense public health and communications instruction before they conduct an inspection on their own," according to the brochure.

"Our inspectors are rigorously trained to conduct fair, thorough and scientifically informed food safety inspections, and evaluated on that work," said a representative from the Department of Health. "Their work is improving restaurant hygiene and keeping diners safer when eating out. They are also trained specifically each year on customer service, conflict resolution and personal safety."

The Department of Health Department declined to comment specifically on the new bills.

According to New York State Restaurant Association representative Andrew Mosel, the Health Department has a long way to go before restaurants get a fair and consistent experience from the 100 to 140 inspectors citywide.

"Restaurant operators have had inconsistent experiences with inspectors," said Mosel. "There are many who are well-trained, courteous and good at their jobs, but there are many who could use improvement and we hope the bill will help that."

According to the new bill, however, restaurants will have rights when it comes to facing inspectors who may be inconsistent in telling them what lightbulb to use, or where the inspection sign should hang in the window. The new New York City Business Owner's Bill of Rights ensures, among other things, "inspectors who are polite, properly dressed and properly identified" as well as "knowledgeable and informed inspectors."

Despite this, many restaurants are claiming that these bills are not enough, according to the New York City Hospitality Alliance. Robert S. Bookman, general and legislative counsel at the Hospitality Alliance said that despite training and the supposed reduction of fines that it all comes back to the subjectivity of the inspection. He said that one small restaurant in Manhattan recently contested a letter grade change from A to B, because the inspector found mouse droppings and happened to count each of the mouse droppings as one location of an incident, when in reality, inspectors are only supposed to count the general location of the droppings.

"If you look at the points system, it's extremely complicated and subjective. They are well trained but they are not rocket scientists, and even if they were, everyone interprets things differently," said Bookman. "If one inspector counted same number of droppings, it might have been 8 points instead of 28. Same droppings. Same store. You can't train for that."

Bookman, however, does think that the etiquette training will be helpful when it comes to language barriers, because for mom and pop restaurants, it's difficult enough to understand the rules and regulations even when English is your first language. He believes that the points system should be overhauled completely, but that, he said would take a completely different kind of bill.

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