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NYC Restaurants Improve Food Safety Practices After Advent Of Rating System

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Inside the Elaborate Schemes Restaurants Use to Survive Health Inspections

Most restaurants have “A” health grades — but in reality, many are presenting a different face on inspection day

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Code words. Fake orders. Mandates to throw out every single cutting board, and strict rules to not touch any fruit. These are just some of the tactics that New York City restaurants have when dealing with an inspector from the Department of Health.

It can be quite dramatic: One high-profile “dinner theater” installs a special “DOH” button on its point-of-sale system that, when pressed, goes to every receipt machine in the restaurant — warning employees that this “is not a test.” At a well-established tiki bar near Times Square, a code phrase to note that a health inspector has arrived is “Beyonce is here.”

More than a dozen staffers at restaurants and bars across the city told Eater that stories such as these are commonplace, happening everywhere from neighborhood watering holes to Manhattan restaurants with Michelin-star ratings.

To an average diner, restaurants’ strategies to present a different face on inspection day might sound troubling. But people in the industry who spoke with Eater, many who wished to remain anonymous, all expressed a similar sentiment: These businesses aren’t necessarily in gross violation of the health code — they’re simply reacting to a system that feels broken.

Most businesses, they say, find the code difficult to follow exactly due to inconsistency from inspector to inspector; one might dock points for something that another would ignore. The warnings help keep violations to a minimum in an effort to earn the much-coveted “A” letter grade, they say. Many think it’s the only way to survive.

”If you went to a chef at a well-regarded restaurant … they would be confident and proud and could tell you a lot of things they do to ensure food safety,” says Moira Bedell, who has worked in various front-of-house capacities at high-end New York City restaurants for the past eight years. “But when you tell them a DOH inspector is in the restaurant, the color will drain from their face, and they are terrified.”

The letter grade system rolled out in 2011 under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in an effort to fight foodborne illnesses in New York City, which were on the rise at the time. It replaced the old pass/fail model of health inspections, and the city started grading restaurants on an A-to-C scale, with a requirement to post the grades clearly in the window. (Anything under a C grade must close to fix violations.)

Two years into the graded method, Bloomberg and the DOH considered it a success, noting a 14 percent reduction in salmonella cases within the five boroughs. It was also a money-maker. The first year of the new system, the city earned $42 million from fines imposed on restaurants that violated the health codes during inspections.

Many in the restaurant industry were less than pleased, and pretty much immediately, the tricks that restaurants employed to avoid lower letter grades became publicized. There were once rumors that Mario Batali installed alarms in his restaurants to “thwart” health inspectors, though his management denied it, and some restaurants tried to avoid inspections altogether by claiming that they were supermarkets or warehouses.

But in the past few years, the number of stories have slowed, and letter grades have risen. Now, more than 90 percent of restaurants are displaying “A” grades, according to the Department of Health.

Though this statistic sounds heartening, the reality is that restaurants are still inventing schemes to navigate the health department’s rules. A manager at a catering venue detailed to Eater how the company uses security guards to stall the inspector while they scramble to get things in order. One longtime server explained how restaurant staff would use a doorbell at the front of the space that would go off in the kitchen once the inspector arrived.

Code words on point-of-sales systems that roll out onto receipts are also commonplace. It might be “table 30 got seated” when the restaurant has no table 30, or an order for pizza when the restaurant doesn’t serve pizza, according to Nicole Kanev, who has worked in nearly every capacity of a restaurant since 2011. When punched in, the words go straight to the kitchen and bar staff, who can then do last-minute prep for the inspector.

Other restaurants accept that they’ll lose money or annoy customers when the inspector arrives. One former Manhattan manager says his standing rule of action was to halt all service. “We got nailed once because someone barehanded a bag of lettuce without a glove,” the manager says. “They didn’t even touch the food, but they docked us for handling food without a glove. So after that, I was like ‘Step back and let them do all their searches.’”

Indeed, one common and costly response to the arrival of an inspector is to just toss everything in the trash. Kate Gordon, who has been bartending in New York City for the past three years, says she’s had to throw away cutting boards or egg whites used in cocktails when an inspector arrived. “It’s too much of a risk that you’ll get docked for it,” she says.

chefs cleaning a kitchen David Tadevosian/Shutterstock

The problem, the employees say, is that different inspectors dock points differently, and many infractions seem to fall into a gray area.

A few years ago, one of the restaurants Kanev worked at received a violation when an inspector saw stacks of small plates in a server station and informed them that those plates needed to be covered, or the top plate had to be flipped over. At another, the business was marked off because thin mixing straws were unwrapped; the straws, which were in a plastic container on the bar, typically do not come wrapped. One violation included the bartender having a rag in their back pocket.

These types of violations can often vary from inspector to inspector because the language of the health code is not always explicit. In the cases that Kanev experienced, the rules don’t say that a rag can’t be in the pocket of a bartender, but it does state “cloths used for the cleaning and sanitizing of food contact and non-food contact surfaces shall be stored clean and dry, or in a sanitizing solution between uses.” What determines when a rag is and isn’t in use can be at the discretion of the inspector.

The same goes with drinking straws. The code notes that straws “shall not be offered to the consumer unless they are completely enclosed in a wrapper or dispensed from a sanitary device.” How is a sanitary device determined? The code doesn’t say.

“There’s not one place I’ve worked at where we were trying to cover up something that was actually bad or unhealthy,” Kanev says. “Listen, I am all for restaurants being healthy and clean — I mean I want to eat out in New York and feel safe, too — but then there are things that are a little crazy.”

straws on a bar
Straws might be contained in containers on a bar — but are they considered sanitary by the DOH?
Viktoriia Novokhatska/Shutterstock

Other times, it’s the specificity of the law that can get restaurants in trouble. Hand-washing sinks need to be within 25 feet from a food prep area. Kitchen lights have to be a specific wattage and within an exact distance from the kitchen and the ceiling.

Sometimes, though, the architecture of the city’s old buildings prevent a restaurant from sticking to those rules, according to a chef of a high-end lower Manhattan Mexican restaurant — forcing a business into violations.

For instance, if refrigerators and ice machines have a leak, that leak must “convey to the sewer or sewage disposal system.” But built-up condensation on a pipe that drips onto the floor could technically count as a leak that needs to be directed into a sewage line. One inspector may choose to overlook that, noting that it’s simply condensation, while another could decide to dock points.

“If an inspector is understanding on that regard, then kudos to them for being empathetic,” he says, “but that’s not always the case.”

This made many people who spoke with Eater wary that the agenda of the inspector is less about following code and more about finding an issue so the restaurant must pay the city a fine.

”The cleaner the restaurant, where there aren’t a lot of issues, that’s when the small violations like unwrapped straws come out,” says Kanev. “There’s been so many times I’ve seen a place marked down for things that other inspectors didn’t care about. It’s always when they haven’t found any violations in the kitchen or elsewhere. It’s like they can’t give us nothing and are just looking for something to mark off.”

The Department of Health denies these allegations. In an email to Eater, DOH officials noted that inspectors adhere strictly to what’s in the health code, and added that the inspections are ultimately for the betterment of the establishments themselves.

“The NYC Health Department is committed to helping restaurants and food service operators achieve ‘A’ grades,” wrote a DOH in an official statement to Eater.

man cleaning kitchen Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

So what incentive could an inspector have for seeking violations? The staffers blame the way that the fining system is set up.

Though a majority of NYC food establishments received an A-grade last year, the actuality of their violations could be quite different. If a restaurant or bar falls below an A on their initial annual inspection, the owners can often just throw money at the problem. Infractions from an inspection can be challenged at a health department tribunal hearing in front of a judge, where violations are often thrown out until an “A” score is reached. While the restaurant may get the grade they want, the restaurant still has to pay for violations, even if they’re removed by the judge.

The cost of these fines can range from $200 to $2,000, depending on the severity. For a major restaurant group or a high-volume Manhattan bar, this money can be just a drop in the bucket. Restaurants will sometimes also go the extra length of hiring health code consultants who will train staff, conduct mock inspections, and fight violations against the city if needed. These consultants can run restaurants usually around $250 to $500 a month but sometimes much more, depending on the services.

For an independently owned coffee shop or a local bar trying to keep a low overhead, the cost of violations and hiring health code consultants to fight the violations is a bigger, more critical dent in their profits.

What has resulted is a culture where NYC bars and restaurants go to creative lengths to prepare for when an inspector arrives. Even if many in the industry consider the letter grading system to be flawed, they’ll still do what it takes to maintain an A grade. After all, 88 percent of New Yorkers consider a letter grade when dining, according to a city report released in the first year after the new system was implemented.

All this comes down to a lack of common sense in the system, some say. To Gordon, the spirit of the health code — to keep food and customers safe — is being manipulated and forgotten. And because fines are involved, ultimately, the health code inspection process favors establishments with more money, they say.

Few people had ideas on what could practically change, though some suggested a return to the pass/fail days of health inspections where smaller violations can’t be a crucial determinant between a “B” grade and a “C.” But until then, restaurants will continue using code words, doorbells, and whatever other warning systems to keep those fines to a minimum when dreaded annual health inspector has arrived.

Saxon Baird is a writer, radio producer, and photographer living in Brooklyn.

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