Chinatown restaurants learn how to get an 'A'
Updated: 2013-10-25 11:13
By Caroline Berg in New York (China Daily USA)
Between July 2012 and March 2013, New York restaurants paid $30.3 million in health inspection fines. Of the 293 restaurants in Manhattan's Chinatown district, the total in fines was about $600,000.
"For such a small restaurant community, that amount is really significant," Rada Tarnovsky, a New York attorney and president of Letter Grade Consulting, told a group of about 20 Chinatown restaurant representatives during a health- inspection workshop this week.
Letter Grade Consulting, which was founded in 2010 to raise awareness and help food-service establishments operate at the highest level of food safety, charges a fee for its services.
"I know that there's 20 percent more 'A' grades citywide than there is in the Chinatown area," Tarnovsky told China Daily. "Mostly you will see it's ethnic communities that have less 'A' grades and more 'B' grades. That's pretty much across the board."
To help restaurateurs in the community improve their health-inspection grades and overall daily sanitation upkeep, the Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) office held a two-hour English and Chinese language workshop on Wednesday on the health-inspection process and common issues that plague the community's restaurants.
Tarnovsky and her partner Leon Lubarsky spoke to restaurateurs and encouraged them to seek help from legal experts, such as their own consulting business.
"While representing clients at tribunal hearings, we noticed many owners and operators from Chinatown, many without adequate representation, many willing to pay fines just to pay, and many accepting settlements when settlements probably should not have been accepted," Tarnovsky said.
The average number of inspections was 2.5 annually, according to the city's Health department. In 2013, Tarnovsky said that number is expected to increase to an average of four annual inspections. Health inspectors will check on businesses with 'B' or 'C' grades more frequently, which means they will likely discover more violations and stick the owner with more fines, Tarnovsky said.
Even if the business receives an "A" grade, each restaurant pays an average of $800 annually for the inspection. For a "B," each restaurant pays an average of $2,800-$4,200 annually on inspection fines and fees. For a "C" grade, it can cost $6,000 to $10,000 annually.
Currently, more than half of Chinatown BID food establishments have an "A" grade, which consumers can see posted on the front entrance. Thirty-nine restaurants are in the process of appealing their grades with "Grade Pending" signs in their windows, 47 have B's and 10 have C's, while 47 have yet to be graded.
The city implemented the letter grade system three years ago to help consumers make decisions when choosing where to eat. It became an incentive for restaurants to maintain the highest food-safety standards and to reduce the spread of food-borne illnesses, Tarnovsky told the restaurateurs.
He said "80 percent of consumers consider letter grades when they go out for food", citing a 2012 report. "If you have anything but an 'A' in your window, there will be a decrease in revenue, loss of goodwill, plus the possibility of closure."
The letter-grade system consists of more than 1,000 points, and the more points compiled, the more it will cost the restaurant.
"If you get 14 points, you get a 'B'," Lubarsky told the restaurateurs. "It's very easy - just a few simple mistakes and you've lost your 'A'."
Lubarsky said thermometers used to test the temperature of food are easy targets for health inspectors. Not using a thermometer correctly, or at all, will set the restaurant back eight points. Kitchens are also supposed to keep sanitation buckets to wipe off counters, and if a rag is found left outside the bucket, that's five points.
"That's 13 points," Lubarsky said, adding up the two common violations he has seen in Chinatown restaurants. "One more mistake, any mistake, and you're done."
A dirty apron, you ask? Five points.
"It's very important not to try to remember what to do, but to understand why you're doing it, so that you're always doing it correctly," Lubarsky said.
Common violations Lubarsky said he hass seen on mock inspection visits to Chinatown restaurants also include pest-breeding food debris on the floor, condensation in pipes that cause water contamination, lack of hair restraints, the use of damaged food cans, exposed holes in ceilings and walls, and lack of or improper use of hand-wash sinks.
"Every food prep area has to have hand-wash sinks 25 feet from the food prep area," Lubarsky said. "People brush their teeth in it. This is not okay. Hand-wash sinks are for hand washing only. It's not a place to set a cup or a spoon. It's just to hand-wash."
And don't get Lubarsky started on improper glove use.
"You have to change your gloves when they rip, you have to change your gloves when you sneeze in them - people do that, believe it or not," Lubarsky said and drew some laughs. "When you handle money, when you go to the bathroom, you have to change your gloves. It sounds silly, but we see that all the time."
Chinatown restaurants often run into trouble with their duck and rice products, such as one Peking duck restaurant that was told that it could no longer serve the fowl at the tableside, which it had done for decades, according to the BID.
Lubarsky said he heard a story from a man this week, who has run the same restaurant for six years, but still received 38 points in his most recent health inspection. One of the violations was that his rice pots were too big and could not fit into the sink to wash.
"He has two options," Lubarsky said. "Get a bigger sink, but then he'd have to move because there's no room for a bigger sink. Or he could get smaller pots, but the that means he has to cook all day."
That man now has $3,420 in fines and a "C" on his window. For just a couple hundred of dollars prior to the inspection, Lubarky said the man could have consulted with Letter Grade Consulting and saved himself from this trouble.
"The message we want to get across today is - yes, Chinatown is an ethnic community; yes, it's densely populated; yes, many food establishments are in extremely old structures; yes, there are problems, but we as a community have made a commitment," Tarnovsky said. "We as a community are taking steps to be proactive and we are ready for our inspections."
(China Daily USA 10/25/2013 page10)