Perhaps it was the miserable persistence of the weeknight rain, but Fu Sushi was near empty. Two waitresses sat under a lightbulb just inside a chipped enclosure of the low-lit Alphabet City sushi joint.
In back, a trio of diners sat against the slither of a greentiled wall devouring rolls. “I’m full but I wanna continue eating,” one paused long enough to exclaim. “This is sooooo good!” But was it? I sat with my somewhat-willing date by the sushi counter, where odd fish hunks were protected by cellophane, near a clutter of fish sauce containers, rice wine and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. A cackle from the kitchen announced our dinner: a warm sweet potato roll, a plate of pieces crowned by a red, whipped mash of spicy tuna and yellow tail, and a fleshy, gelatinous line of solo yellow tail bites, each bulging indelicately from a wrapping of sticky rice.
We drowned our wasabi with soy sauce and readied the sticks. Were we sure we wanted to do this? “I was just thinking…” I began to say. “Shhhh,” my date shushed, and she was right: contemplation is often the lesser part of bravery.
Ignorance is bliss, especially when it comes to raw fish. I’d gone to Fu’s after reading the restaurant inspection posted online by the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) from the previous week. It listed a number of “Critical” violations, including “Evidence of mice or live mice” and “Live roaches present.” According to the DHMH, the restaurant is “not yet graded.”
After eating a number of C-grade meals, I discovered that I didn’t come down with anything worse than low-level anxiety. This was partially warranted
because, in an effort to balance the competing prerogatives of informing the public and giving restaurants a fair chance to clean up their acts, the city ends up glossing over some of the worst offenders.
The NY-DHMH is in charge of health and safety inspections for the city’s approximately 24,000 restaurants. Last summer, the government organization installed a new inspection system that awards grades based on points. The less points a restaurant scores, the better its grade, which must be posted in the window for anyone to see. A score of 0–13 points earns an “A,” 14–27 points earns a “B” and from 28 on, a restaurant earns a “C.” There is no grade lower than C.
In a June 2010 press release, before the grading system took effect, Health Commissioner Peter Farley said the purpose of the grades was “to help consumers make informed choices about where to eat out.”
But can consumers “make informed choices” when the worst-performing restaurants, the ones they are most likely to avoid, are also the least likely to have a grade? As of last week, there are around 2,400 restaurants that scored over 27 points on their last inspection, putting them in the C range. Less than a third of these restaurants actually have a C grade.
A graded school quiz is simple to interpret. A student answers questions, earns a certain number of points and receives a grade based on that total. The Health Department’s grading system does not work that way. It’s more like grading at a lax progressive school, where students pay a shitload to get a second or third chance, past performance is taken into account and it’s in neither the student body’s nor the administration’s best interest to flunk anyone.
On a regular basis, restaurants that scored in the C range on their last inspection will maintain its grade of B or A. The Breslin restaurant at The Ace Hotel, for example— which recently earned a Michelin star—has an A grade, although it scored in the C range on its most recent inspection. It’s not special in this regard: a quarter of all restaurants that scored 28 points on their last inspection still have A grades.
The grading system provides more conditions under which an inspection won’t be graded than conditions under which it will. A restaurant’s first inspection isn’t graded unless it receives an A. If it doesn’t, it has about a month to clean up before it receives a second “graded” inspection. Fu Sushi, which remains officially “Not Yet Graded,” is in this category. If a restaurant still scores in the B or C range on its “graded” re-inspection, it can choose to appeal the ruling to an administrative tribunal, where it can plead its case, pay fines, attempt to reduce its score and post a “Grade Pending” sign. A restaurant scoring in the C range will receive ungraded “compliance” inspections about every 30 days until it scores under 28 points or is shut down. Inspections based on complaints (for C restaurants and others) are also not graded.
Implicit in the relative rarity of graded inspections is the idea that a badgrade is seriously bad news for a restaurant’s bottom line. “A ‘C’ grade can be a scarlet letter for a restaurant,” says Andrew Rigie, the director of operations at the New York State Restaurant Association. “You’re issued a ‘C’ grade once, and if a customer sees that, they may never come back to that restaurant.”
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.
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.