This system flunks
Congressman Grimm's op-ed appeared in The New York Post:
New York is home to some of the greatest food in the country, from diners and pizza parlors to five-star restaurants. No one can beat our restaurants — but you certainly can kill them, if you’re a city health inspector.
This week, a survey of 1,297 restaurant owners brought to light the problems with the Health Department’s letter-grade system: It’s inconsistent, it doesn’t make sense — and, most of all, it’s expensive and putting us out of business.
This rating system takes an old problem to a whole new level. While we all want high health standards, the city government’s enforcement has been uneven and corruption-prone for a long time. I know this first-hand; from 2007 to 2009, I owned a health-food restaurant on the Upper East Side, and I had the same complaints.
Too often, it seemed — and, from what I hear, still seems — like the inspector came in the door with a dollar figure in his head, then proceeded to seek out enough violations to justify it. For the restaurateur, it’s like being the victim of a protection racket, except you can’t call the cops.
I heard the same from people in my district. One Brooklyn diner owner became so fed up that he threw in the towel the last time the inspector came around. He literally shut down — kicked out the patrons, asked his staff to leave and padlocked the door — closing his diner permanently after decades in business. It was cheaper (and less grief) to shut down than pay the city again for its absurd claims.
Time and again, I hear the story of inspectors searching high and low for violations in order to hit owners with a lower letter score. I know a case where a clean spoon fell off a rack into the hand-wash sink — triggering a heavy fine simply because the sink is not to be used for anything other than washing hands.
To change an unfair score, you have to do much more than just fix the problem; the owner must go before a judge and pay the city an exorbitant amount of money. (You can change the grade even faster, so long as you can pony up for an expensive attorney.)
All New York businesses face rising operating costs, thanks to rising gas prices and outrageous tolls hikes; the last thing anyone needs is to shell out thousands to the Health Department in this scam. This is nothing more than a veiled tax; owners who work 18 hour days, 7 days a week, can no longer afford it.
In Washington yesterday, the House overwhelmingly passed the JOBS Act — a bipartisan package designed to cut red tape stifling economic growth, to increase small businesses’ access to capital so they can grow and create jobs.
As Congress moves forward on this front, it steams me to see city government making it harder for small businesses to thrive, by regulating and taxing them to death.
Many of our parents and grandparents came to New York without a penny in their pockets to pursue the American dream. For some, that dream included opening a restaurant. Scams like the restaurant grades may squash that dream for a new generation of restaurateurs.
New York City needs to take a hard look at what the inspection system is doing to our restaurant industry and make some serious changes. Small-business owners need to know that government is on their side and that New York is, and always will be, open for business.