City officials propose reforms for inspecting restaurants

By Chris Engelhardt

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan) met with several Council members last week, including Queens officials, to unveil a legislative package intended to improve New York City’s restaurant inspection program while protecting the health of residents.

Quinn, joined by Councilmen Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans), Peter Koo (D-Flushing) and Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), announced the proposed reforms at Jerry’s Café, on Chambers Street in Manhattan, July 8. Officials said the package was created in response to criticism by restaurant owners over the city’s letter grading inspection system.

In 2010, the city Department of Health introduced the grading system to help assist the public in making decisions on where to dine while improving restaurant compliance with health and safety regulations and reducing food-borne illnesses.

But since the system was implemented, Quinn said, there has been an increase in inspections. Restaurant owners voiced concern through the Council’s citywide Restaurant Inspection Survey, as well as during a March 2012 DOH oversight hearing, citing an increase in fines, inconsistent inspections and frayed relations with the DOH.

Several bills are included as part of this legislative package, including one measure from Van Bramer.

The package will address concerns by creating an advisory board to ensure for the ongoing review of the restaurant inspection program, establishing an ombudsman office to receive and address comments, complaints and compliments and developing an inspection code of conduct pamphlet that inspectors will distribute to restaurant owners and operators before the beginning of an initial inspection. Fines will also be waived for restaurateurs who contest an initial inspection’s findings and ultimately receive an “A.”

Overall, the package will result in fine reductions, officials said.

Van Bramer’s bill calls for restaurant owners to have the option of requesting a consultative and ungraded inspection for educational purposes.

“An inspector will come in and give them an educational inspection, which will let them know about issues so they have a chance to fix them,” he said. “I’ve heard from many restaurants and cafés about the horror stories of how challenging it can be when inspectors play this game of ‘gotcha’ with them. And it’s unknown to them that there’s even been a violation.”

State Restaurant Association spokesman Andrew Moesel said that while the proposed reforms “don’t make the system perfect,” they will go “a long way to bring relief to small business owners.”

Van Bramer said the bills making up the legislative package will be introduced in the coming months. Hearings, and ultimately voting by the Council, will follow.

Reach reporter Chris Engelhardt by e-mail at cengelhardt@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

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