By Gabe Kahn
When Sandy Johnson witnessed a fight in front of her restaurant, Sandy’s Jamerican Cuisine, in May, she knew it meant trouble. A woman involved in the altercation mistook the other participant for someone who worked at the restaurant and had threatened to report it to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Shortly thereafter, two health inspectors indeed showed up, stayed for six hours and tallied 66 violation points, 39 more than the maximum restaurant can have under the city health code. Not surprisingly, Sandy’s Jamerican Cuisine was immediately shut down by the department of health.
The scene with the inspectors — especially the end result — was not abnormal for restaurants in the East Flatbush, Remsen and Farragut neighborhoods of Brooklyn. A higher percentage of restaurants in these areas are not up to code or have been shut down, compared to the rates in adjacent communities. With New York City implementing a new restaurant grading system later this month and the economic downturn’s effect on small businesses, some people believe that the inspection standards are too strict.
The number of violations in the East Flatbush area is particularly high. Of the bordering communities, restaurants in Crown Heights (both north and south) have failed approximately 20 percent of their inspections in 2010 (14 of 58). Flatbush (10 of 41), Canarsie (4 of 17) and Brownsville (7 of 29) have each failed 24 percent. The East Flatbush area, however, failed 33 of 111 inspections, approximately 30 percent. In addition, East Flatbush had the most flagrant violations, as individual restaurants have scored 58, 63, 65, 66, 71, 82 and 98 points. Flatbush is the only competitor in that area with high scores of 87, 86 and 57 points. The legal limit is 27 points.
“What they have done to me is a nightmare and they just killed my dreams,” Johnson, whose given first name is Student, said of the department’s aggressiveness. “A cigarette butt was on the floor in the basement where the hot water tank is and it must’ve come off of somebody’s shoe bottom. They gave me a violation for it. Come on now! They’re picking on everything.”
Since July, the health department began requiring that letter grades based on inspection scores be prominently placed on restaurants’ outer doors or windows. Restaurants receive a grade of an “A” for scores of 0-13, a “B” if it scores 14-27 and a “C” for 28 points and higher. In a press release, the department, which declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, said that the new grading system will “help consumers make informed choices about where to eat out” and that it “creates a powerful new incentive for restaurants to maintain the highest food safety standards.”
However, not everyone thinks it will work.
“In general, we believe only two grades count: You’re safe enough to be open or you’re not safe enough to be open,” said Robert Bookman, legal counsel and spokesman for the New York State Restaurant Association. “There are too many nonfood-related items that go into the grade. And while they are talking about food safety, and that this is really what it’s all about, that’s not what’s happening as far as the inspection scores go.”
Bookman made reference to a recent article in the New York Post that found that numerous famous restaurants, including Gallagher’s Steak House and Katz’s Delicatessen in Manhattan, would have earned C’s if grades were handed out last month. Among the violations: a bathroom that was not properly maintained, wood paneling with a leak and a defective dishwasher.
“What does that have to do with kitchen or food safety?” Bookman asked. “There are a lot of items that could have nothing to do with food safety and could make a difference between an A or a B, or a B or a C.”
On the other hand, a recent report on public-radio station WNYC cited a 2003 study that showed that after a similar grading system was introduced in Los Angeles, there was a 20-percent decrease in hospital admissions related to food-borne illnesses.
For this reason, some locals feel that the grading system is justified. Trevor Baboolan, originally from Trinidad and a resident of East Flatbush for the past 32 years, said that he does not go out to eat very often as he is wary of the care restaurants put into preparing food.
“The restaurant owners will have to improve their system,” Baboolan said. “I think it’s very good, especially because it’s about your health. You get food poisoning, you get all sorts of sicknesses from food, so it’s very important.”
Still, Baboolan doesn’t believe that most people in his community of Caribbean immigrants will share his opinion.
“I think a lot of West Indians, as long as the food tastes good, that’s all they are interested in,” he said. “As long as they don’t get sick, they’re still going to eat.”
One of the theories for why East Flatbush has a higher rate of inspection violations than its neighbors is that inspectors haven’t made an attempt to learn about Caribbean cooking methods. For example, pig’s tail, a Jamaican delicacy, is preserved in salt and then boiled and rinsed to remove the salt. Johnson said that she was in the process of preparing the dish when the inspectors walked into her kitchen.
“They come and they see it sitting there in water as I’m soaking it and they give me a violation for it because they said once it sits in water, it’s not preserved anymore,” she said. “They don’t understand about our ethnic food.”
Zorina Badall, the manager of Nio’s West Indian Restaurant & Bakery, believes that the nature of the violations, rather than a clashing of cultures, is to blame for the high number of restaurants not being up to code. Nio’s was recently shut down for five days when inspectors found fruit flies in the basement of the restaurant, a violation of 28 points.
“That one violation is a C violation right there, and that’s only one violation,” said Badall. The restaurant was also fined $550 for the infraction.
Bookman said that there are about three dozen individual violations alone that could put a restaurant in the C range. Also, he said that many restaurants do poorly because of the large number of violations.
“Out of 1200 potential points, it’s easy to nitpick 20 some odd points,” he said.
Although Bookman said no one can predict the effect the new grading system will have on small restaurants with already-tight margins like those found in East Flatbush, it is possible that customers will disregard the grading system altogether.
“There may be a widespread ignoring of it, saying ‘Those letters don’t mean a thing to us,’ which would be a best-case scenario for those restaurants,” Bookman said.
The harsh sanctions could also come back to haunt the department, at least in Johnson’s view.
“New York is already becoming a ghost town for businesses that are closed down,” according to Johnson, whose restaurant has not yet reopened, and likely never will. “How are they going to benefit from that?”