A town hall meeting for restaurant owners and operators hosted by Councilman David G. Greenfield (D-Brooklyn) last night in Boro Park highlighted the critical need to immediately review and reform many of the city’s onerous regulations governing the food service industry. Over 80 local restaurant owners and managers who attended Greenfield’s town hall made it clear that they feel under siege by the city’s practices. Many explained that they are struggling to stay in business due to the overregulation and aggressive enforcement of city agencies, especially by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH). “Inspectors come in here like we’re the enemy,” explained one restaurant owner who detailed a recent incident where a DOH inspector tried to shut down his restaurant because she claimed there were high levels of carbon monoxide. The restaurant owner insisted that the inspector was wrong and called the Fire Department, which determined that there was in fact no carbon monoxide present in the restaurant.
“Last night, I heard first-hand from restaurant owners on how the city’s aggressive practices are putting them out of business. There is no question that these restaurant owners are dedicated to the health and welfare of their customers. However, it seems like the main motivation of the city is to make money by fining restaurants rather than working with them to ensure consumer safety,” Greenfield explained. “I heard from many concerned, even frightened, restaurant owners who made it clear they will be out of business unless the city brings consistency, oversight and adequate inspector training to the process.”
Greenfield was joined at his forum by Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr., the chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee. The council members will use the input and feedback they received to advocate for ways to make the inspection process fairer for all without compromising public safety.
“Small businesses, such as restaurants, account for more than half of New York City’s private sector jobs, making it imperative that we ensure the viability of this crucial sector of our economy. The current lack of standardized procedure for initial and follow up inspections has created a process that has proven to be quite burdensome for owners who are now shouldering the consequences of an inept system that hinders new business opportunities and stalls growth,” said Recchia. “Overregulation stands in the way of many small businesses, particularly those in the restaurant industry, and it is important that the right measures be taken to ensure this vital part of our economy does not slip away.”
Many restaurant owners in attendance recounted instances of being fined and getting a lower letter grade for violations not related to food safety, such as for having a wet floor immediately after moping or an uncovered light bulb in a non-food storage closet.
The owner of a pizza establishment said an inspector indiscriminately used bleach to destroy a large shipment of cheese that had just arrived because the inspector claimed it was not at the correct temperature. The owner begged to return the cheese to the supplier but the inspector refused, causing a loss of thousands of dollars. The next week a different inspector told the owner that he would have not thrown out the cheese. In such cases, owners have no recourse when the inspector acts incorrectly. “If they want to get you, they will,” said one owner. “It’s legalized extortion by the city.”
Much of the frustration was due to inconsistency in how inspections are conducted and lack of notification when guidelines and rules change. “I’m all for health inspections, let’s be clear about that. But I’m for fair inspections,” stressed one local merchant. Said another: “You are talking about hard working people, not rich people, and the city is putting us out of business.”
Approximately 1,500 restaurants across the city were shut by the DOH during Fiscal Year 2011, a 17 percent increase from the prior year. Restaurant fines in FY 2011 increased to more than $42 million, which is more than double the amount collected in 2005. The Mayor’s current proposed budget for FY 2013 includes a projected $44 million in health fines collected. “The city doesn’t care about safety, they only care about making money,” lamented one owner.
“A thriving restaurant scene is a key component of any great neighborhood and city. If we don’t take steps immediately to reform the health inspection system, we will continue to lose many of the establishments we enjoy. I thank the restaurant owners for taking the time to attend last night’s event and look forward to working with them and my colleagues in government to bring needed changes to this process,” added Greenfield.