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How to Survive the Small Hell That is a DOH Hearing

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On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, Jim Chu, co-owner of Jo's in Nolita, deals with the bureaucratic hell that is the Dept. of Health office.

2008_02_onethehouseA.jpgThe restaurant world is filled with a kaleidoscope of characters. It includes people who escaped persecution to open a humble food cart, to trust fund kids hell bent on destroying their inheritance in a bonfire of the vanities, and everyone in between. Everyone has a different motivation to get in to this game. That being said, not even the sickest, most masochistic, workaholic maniac gets in the business to experience the NYC DOH.

Much has been made of the Dept of Health’s activities – and why not? There is a lot of drama in French chefs freaking out when everything they are doing is based on techniques that have been around for hundreds of years (LCB Brasserie) Chefs playing hide and seek with sous vide machines. And who can forget rats ballroom dancing at the local KFC.

What you never get to hear about is what happens afterward.

The city just instituted a plan where they assess a penalty and you can pay a portion of the fine by mail, and not have to go to court. If you have more money than time, this is the move. If you think you have it in you, fight city hall. Even if you have one violation, this means a hearing, and with every hearing comes a flutter of the heart. Not the kind that you have when you fall in love, the kind you have right before you feel a shooting pain up your right arm and you hear a screaming ringing sound in your ears because you are having a freaking heart attack. If you take the maximum penalties, the fines can be in the thousands even with minor infractions like not having a safety chain on a soda tank. This and other violations puts me in line for at least $2,600 if I can’t get at least some of these kicked. I have colleagues who regularly lose $3,000 a year, and you could eat off their kitchen floor.

Not every restaurant owner has to do this – Thomas Keller along with very few others have been able to walk away with zero points. You may have someone else represent you, either a lawyer or an employee, but when you are a hands-on operator, you probably don’t have anyone willing to go for you. I had to go recently, so I thought I would share this fine moment with our little community. After all, misery loves company, and if you have to go, do it like a veteran.

THE TIMING

Most court times are either 10 AM or 2 PM. If you get the 10 AM slot, get there early – at 9:30 there is a rush, and if you don’t get on the docket in time, you get screwed.

THE PUNT

You don’t have to go right when they say you do - you can delay twice for basically no reason. After that though, you are stuck.

THE SPOT

Like any shimmering star in the constellation of New York’s bureaucracy, looks aren’t awesome, but the AC certainly is. You can ice skate in there. Turn off your ringer before you get in, and don’t talk on the phone while you are there. You get yelled at, and god knows what will happen to your file if you get on the wrong side of some of these folks. Cool thing is the waiting area is a veritable rogues gallery. You can run into any operator in the city, fighting a ticket for some guy who refused to wear a hat.

THE PROCEDURE

There is a counter there, but don’t walk right up to it. You will get the evil eye or worse. There is a line where the first row of chairs starts. Use it. If you see a guy hanging around with a pile of folders, you better beat him to the line. He’s a paid representative or attorney, and he may have a dozen cases to sign in. Sign in with your docket number handy. Have a seat up front – they will call your name to sign the appearance form. This will be followed by more waiting. Getting the picture? If you are dicking around or wearing an iPod and miss your name being called, they may pull you off the docket.

THE INQUISITION

When they call you a second time, you walk in with the judge. This is an administrative judge, so they look more like regular bored city workers than Judge Judy. They’ll lead you down a sad hallway, with a dozen rooms on each side. If you listen carefully you can hear the howling of lost souls as punishment is meted out. The judge sits you down and swears you in, and gives you a last shot at aborting – you can ask for an attorney to be present, or the inspector, if you really don’t think what they observed was accurate. Now you get to plead your case – each case is different, each judge is different, so you have to just play it by ear. They go point by point, and you have to explain yourself the best you can. This can be very grueling if you have a long list, but mine was pretty short, so that was that. You always live in fear of that nightmare judge that has had a crappy day who wants to drop the hammer on you, but more often than not, judges are as reasonable as you are. Whatever you do, save the bitchfest about how the city is killing you – they know they are killing you, so just deal with the facts of the case and how the penalties are written. If you are very careful about how the violation was written, you can have it discarded. Don’t feel bad if you don’t though – if Danny Meyer has 10 points on his last inspection at 11 Madison Park it means you can be human too.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH

Now you wait. The longest 20 minutes of your life while someone decides how much of that precious money you bleed and sweat for goes right to the city. Remember the Rogues Gallery? The jovial feeling of camaraderie? Gone now, replaced by the feeling of lambs being led to slaughter.

Whatever you get fined, you can pay in 30 days. Or at the convenient window right next to the counter you can run your credit card. At least you can get some airline miles out of this. For me that’s 1600 miles. I am already trying to rationalize getting my ass kicked.

MY HIGHLIGHTS:
$275 for a guy who wouldn’t wear the hair net in his back pocket
$200 for a bag of sugar not in a container (we were receiving a delivery)
$275 for a flat of eggs on top of a wrapped block of cheese
$200 for a quart of milk past NYC due date, but ok for NY state (prep guy read the wrong date)

LAST STOP

You’ve suffered enough. Get to Chinatown and eat your feelings.
—Jim Chu

Jo's

264 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012 212 966 9640

Jo's

264 Elizabeth St., New York, NY

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