New York health inspectors send restaurateurs into panic

Health inspectors assign to restaurants letter grades, printed on placards, which must be visible from the street.
Health inspectors assign to restaurants letter grades, printed on placards, which must be visible from the street.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • A short man in a beige button-down shirt emblazoned with the New York City health department logo walked through the doors of a restaurant kitchen, detected signs of vermin and called over the owner to tell him the bad news.

The restaurateur started shaking and sweating. He fell out of his chair, hit the floor and lost consciousness. An ambulance was called.

The most feared and loathed character in the city's restaurant business is not the critic, or the landlord. It is the health inspector.

New York's inspectors have long been capable of showing up unannounced, recording violations and, if necessary, shutting down a kitchen.

But in 2010, they acquired a new dimension of power: the ability to assign letter grades - printed on placards that must be visible from the street - and to post their findings in an online database where anyone can scrutinise a restaurant's inspection history.

Restaurateurs complained bitterly about the "scarlet letters," and what they saw as punitive enforcement aimed at raising money for the city.

Eight years on, that furore has cooled. The number of restaurants with an A grade rose to 93 per cent in April, from 81 per cent in that first year.

Yet many restaurateurs still feel aggrieved about the rating system; they talk of the health inspectors as arbitrary, unjust - and frightening enough to send an owner to the hospital with a panic attack.

As it turns out, the man in beige who precipitated that crisis is a pleasant, even-keeled individual named Fayick Suleman, who lives in the Bronx with his wife and two children, and - like the letter-grading system - is celebrating his eighth anniversary at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Mr Suleman was in one of the first groups of health inspectors hired and trained after the department began the grades, largely in response to a widely circulated 2007 amateur video that showed rats scurrying through a fast-food kitchen. There are now about 100 restaurant inspectors.

He conducts three or four inspections a day, on average, normally working from 9am until 5pm, or from 3 to 11pm - though a nightclub inspection could keep him out as late as 3am.

His daily schedule is set by a computer that generates a list of randomly selected restaurants in any of the five boroughs.

Inspections can take as little as an hour, or several hours if food safety conditions are poor.

Mr Suleman has to finish one visit before he can start the next. This means that, contrary to the widespread belief that inspectors deliberately show up during peak hours, he has little control over what time he arrives.

Life on the job is lonely. Mr Suleman travels around the city by himself, carrying a backpack with about 18kg of equipment, including the most important tools of all - the letter grades, printed on thick card stock.

The signs he carried were Grade Pending, A, B and "the almighty C", he said.

The last one read, "Closed By Order of the Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene". "This is the sign that nobody wants to see," he added with a small chuckle.

He often feels frustrated by the perception that inspectors are out to punish restaurants.

"I don't think there is any inspector who takes pride in closing down a restaurant," he said.

"But imagine food not being cooked to the right temperature and someone getting very sick. That would make me feel even more guilty."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2018, with the headline 'New York health inspectors send restaurateurs into panic'. Print Edition | Subscribe