NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - 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’s 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 furor 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. (The department would not specify which video, but one shot at a KFC/Taco Bell restaurant in Greenwich Village was attracting attention at that same time.)
There are now about 100 restaurant inspectors.
His experience shows how the inspector’s job works, and how much it has changed, or has not. He says his rounds have become fairly routine – at least for him.
The sight of his distinctive black Casio G’zOne flip phone, the kind issued to inspectors, often sends restaurant staffs into a panic, even when Mr Suleman goes as a civilian.
He has since switched to an iPhone. Still, chaos inevitably erupts whenever he arrives at a restaurant and announces he is there to inspect it.
“People start running back and forth, throwing out food, picking up mops,” he said. “Everyone panics. If you wait too long to do the walk-through, everything is out of your way.”
Mr Suleman grew up in Kumasi, a city in Ghana. He left in 2002, came to New York and studied biochemistry at Hunter College, hoping to become a brain surgeon. But after the financial downturn in 2008, he realized that, with a family to support, he needed a more immediate source of income. One day, he met a health inspector at the lab where he worked.
“I had always been curious about health inspectors,” Mr Suleman said. “I always find it puzzling how, when you go to a restaurant and order food, someone disappears and then next thing you know they appear with your food. I always wondered what happened behind the scenes. What do they do with my food? Who is monitoring them?”
The application requirements, he said, were simple: 30 college credits in a biological or physical science. The hard part was the training. Inspectors must attend months of classes, covering everything from how to write violations to the science of food safety.
At a recent food-protection class at the city’s Health Academy on West 100th Street, students were taught all the diseases a customer could contract if different foods were left out for too long. Served at the improper temperature, smoked fish, for example, can carry dangerous bacteria called clostridium botulinum.
“And clostridium botulinum leads to … ?” asked Ms Meena Wheeler-Rivera, the instructor and a former health inspector for city swimming pools and saunas.
“Paralysis!” the class of about 20 responded in unison.
“And if you don’t go to the hospital … ?”
Ms Wheeler-Rivera knows so much that she rarely eats out anymore. Mr Suleman still patronises restaurants, but the potential life-or-death consequences of not writing up a violation are ingrained in him.
On a recent morning, he had just shut down a restaurant after finding mouse droppings in the walk-in refrigerator. “You usually won’t find mouse droppings in a fridge, because it’s a cool environment,” he said. “So to have droppings in a walk-in is totally uncalled-for. What a way to start the day.” He shook his head disapprovingly.
Mr Suleman conducts three or four inspections a day, on average, normally working from 9 am until 5 pm, or from 3 to 11 pm — though a nightclub inspection, say, 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. (How often a restaurant is inspected depends on how it has fared in past visits.)
When he shows up and introduces himself, he said, restaurants try various “tricks”: Servers press buzzers underneath the host stand to alert the staff that the inspector is there. Sometimes the manager will say he has to go find the manager, and use that time to get ready.
Inspections can take as little as an hour (a perfect score — zero, for no violations — is possible), 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.
“Once we walk in, we can’t just say, ‘No, you are busy, let’s call it a day,’” he said. “No matter the length of the line or how busy a restaurant is, I have to find a way to get the inspection done. It’s unavoidable.”
Life on the job is lonely. Mr Suleman travels around the city by himself, carrying a backpack with about 18kg of equipment: a Panasonic tablet for typing up reports, a portable Brother printer that allows him to deliver his findings on the spot, two kinds of probes for testing air and food temperatures, alcohol pads for sanitizing the probes, a small flashlight, various types of tags for marking and embargoing food and equipment, and the most important tools of all: the letter grades, printed on thick card stock.
Mr Suleman carefully pulled out the signs: 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.
Before the grades, when inspection results were not as public, restaurants had little incentive to to address health violations, said Ms Christine Testa, who left her job as an assistant director of the health department in 2011 to become president of Early Warning Food Service Solutions, which trains restaurants on food safety.
Without that incentive, many restaurants risked being shut down. “I remember closing 10 restaurants in one day,” Ms Testa said. “We were not doing anything but closing people down and taking their money.”
Today, before any inspection, every restaurant receives a health department work sheet detailing all potential violations, so owners can pre-emptively fix problems. Mr. Suleman and others conduct low-cost penalty-free consultations and free workshops for restaurants — measures meant to level the playing field for independent restaurants that lack the resources of larger groups.
But restaurateurs are no less wary about the inspection process; many find it overly subjective, and too ready to write up violations for minor infractions.
“I’m scared of the health department,” said Mr Reed Adelson, the owner of Virginia’s, a restaurant in the East Village. “Not because I have anything to hide, but I know that if they want to find something, they will always find something. There is always a corner you didn’t dust, or a light bulb with too high of a wattage.”
Virginia’s recently received a B grade after an inspector found evidence of mice and foods kept at improper temperatures. The grade was raised to an A after the restaurant addressed some of the violations, and successfully disputed others in a hearing with the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. (Any restaurant can challenge violations before the office.)
But even with the A, Mr Adelson said he ended up paying about US$600 (S$800) in fines, which are imposed by the office. These penalties — which can range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars — and other expenses end up being more financially burdensome than helpful in improving operations, he said.
Mr Wilson Tang, the owner of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, in Chinatown, said that while the fairness of inspections has improved over all, “we look at reports and on one, they picked up those couple of things, and the next inspection is completely different”.
“If the inspector had a great day, cool, they are typically nicer and more lenient,” he said. But others “had a chip on their shoulder and rushed into the kitchen like there was something going on”.
Mr Tang also owns a restaurant in Philadelphia, where “it’s almost laughable how much more lax it is”, he said.
“There is more of a trust in restaurants” in that city, which does not assign letter grades, he added. “They know we are not out to poison people. We are just trying to make a living and provide a service.”
The Magnolia Bakery branch in the Bloomingdale’s flagship store in Midtown chalks up the B grade it received last year to the subjectivity of the inspections. Employees had left scoops in food containers — a potential cross-contamination risk — and the inspector could have penalised the shop only once, but instead chose to record an individual violation for each misplaced scoop, said Mr Bobbie Lloyd, a partner and the executive vice president of operations at Magnolia.
“We had to display a B on our door for quite a while, just because of that gray area,“ she said. “We consider that location to be our cleanest store, but that’s going to make customers pause.” (The grade was later raised to an A.)
Ms Corinne Schiff, the city’s deputy commissioner of environmental health, said there were a number of measures to ensure that restaurants were judged objectively and on the same scale, including an exacting reporting protocol for inspectors to follow, and the random assignments.
But the health department still clearly feels the tension that hovers over the process. It would not let a reporter trail Mr Suleman during his inspections, and limited his interview time. Mr Suleman would not allow his face to be shown in photographs, and was reticent about some details, including his age and his exact salary; the job pays between US$42,500 and about US$76,000 a year, the department said.
Mr Suleman often feels frustrated by the perception that inspectors are out to punish restaurants. “I’m not all-powerful,” he said. “The power is in the hands of the restaurants” to improve their food safety.
So when he shuts a restaurant down, he said, “how do you expect me to feel bad? You have a set of rules, and if you are not following those rules, you deserve what you get.”
For him, the most memorable depiction of a health inspector in pop culture is in the 2003 movie, Deliver Us From Eva, a modern adaptation of The Taming Of The Shrew, starring Gabrielle Union as a ruthless health inspector. “She’s screaming at people, and taunting people,” he said.
This, he insisted, is not what his job is like: He tries to be as friendly as possible (but not too friendly, “or they think you will pass them”) and communicate openly throughout the inspection.
“I don’t think there is any inspector who takes pride in closing down a restaurant,” he added. “But imagine food not being cooked to the right temperature, and someone getting very sick. That would make me feel even more guilty.”
No matter how many customers are protected by shutting down a restaurant, though, the nit-picking, fine-levying bureaucrat will never be the protagonist of the story.
“You want to know why there are only 100 inspectors for 25,000 restaurants?” Ms. Testa asked. “It is a tough job. You have to go into restaurants knowing they are going to hate you. You have to have a tough skin. It’s not warm and fuzzy.”
“That’s why I left the health department, to be honest.”