Quinn champions angry restaurateurs against the city’s health inspections, and the city shrugs

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Rosenberg and Quinn. (Dana Rubinstein)
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A day after Mayor Michael Bloomberg credited his year-and-a-half-old restaurant grading system with a 14 percent drop in salmonella infections, Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined restaurateurs in heaping criticism on a grading rubric they described as inconsistent, punitive and financially onerous.

Quinn has been distancing herself from the mayor in anticipation of a 2013 mayoral run, and on Wednesday she was the star of the show, holding a standing-room-only press conference with restaurateurs in City Hall's Red Room, before ascending to Council Chambers to participate in a contentious hearing on the same topic.

The speaker began the press conference by releasing the results of a 1,300-person online survey of self-identified restaurant industry members. More than 65 percent of respondents, including a majority of those who received the top letter grade of "A", called the city's letter-grading system "poor."

Those numbers, said Quinn, refute "the idea that the people who are complaining are the ones who are getting bad grades," something the mayor posited yesterday afternoon when he called those who complain the sort of people who "think it's OK to have mice and roaches and dirt and not have people wash their hands before they come back from the bathroom."

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Quinn acknowledged the survey was unscientific (it was a SurveyMonkey survey that anyone with an IP address could have taken), but said the Council was acting "in response to what really were mounting and persistent concerns that I heard all across the city, concerns raised by restaurateurs, customers, about the restaurant inspection and grading process."

Two such restaurateurs were in attendance: Herb Wetanson, who both owns Dallas BBQs and builds restaurants, and Scott Rosenberg, owner of Sushi Yasuda.

Wetanson said health department inspectors had something to learn from their buildings department brethren.

"The building department the last several years in the city of New York has sent inspectors in in a positive way to look at what we're constructing, correct us orally, not with fines ... and say, can you move that pipe a half inch this way, or mount this basin on this side," said Wetanson. "And we say, Thank you,' and he comes back and it's done as he says ... The health department has to adopt this philosphy that we are on the same team. We're not enemies to each other. When they come in my restaurant, there's fear in the restaurant, even though we're A, there's fear, and they want to generate that."

The appraisal by Rosenberg, of Sushi Yasuda—where chefs defy city rules and handle sushi in the traditional, barehanded, way—wasn't much kinder. 

Rosenberg said that while he thinks the grading system conceptually makes sense, it has serious flaws that can only be corrected with better inspector training.

"We had over $10,000 worth of beautiful sushi-grade tuna that had been prepped with bare hands, a full tuna, that was tossed into a garbage bag, bleach poured all over it, destroyed," said Rosenberg.

In a reporter's gaggle following the press conference, Rosenberg said the problem was that, while the stakes of getting a bad rating are higher, what with the propect of Scarlet-Letter style "C" hanging in the window, the underlying inspection process hadn't improved alongside.

"So restaurant owners are now desperate to, rather than simply correct the penalties, deal with the hassle and pay the fines and move on, now the restaurant owners are like, OK, how can we actually make sure that we get an A and will do anything possible," said Rosenberg. "But the same procedures and confusion are in place ... It's sort of like putting a penalty system in place without updating the rulebook."

Their complaints fell on deaf ears, just as the mayor yesterday indicated they would.

At the ensuing hearing, city health commissioner Thomas Farley absorbed criticism but said he had no plans to change much of anything.

"No business likes to be regulated," said Farley. "We have high standards for restaurants, because we are charged with safeguarding public health. Most restaurants are meeting those standards. We spend a lot of time helping them get an A. But we will not lower our standards."

And a little while later, the show was over.