The Strand Smokehouse Closed for 20 Days After Owner Blocks Inspector
ASTORIA — A barbecue joint known for its smoked brisket and live music was temporarily shuttered after its owner told a Health Department inspector to scram in a stand against what he feels was an unfair grading process.
During the fracas last summer nearby The Strand Smokehouse, at 25-27 Broadway, the owner, Tommy Vasilis, 42, allegedly "used profanity in telling the inspector to leave and threw the inspector's equipment bag at him," according to the Health Department.
Police were called but ultimately no formal complaint was filed.
The food fight sparked a protracted legal battle and late last month, the restaurant's permits were suspended temporarily, which Vasilis — who denied tossing the bag at the inspector — said forced him to shut down for 20 days.
Vasilis, who faced off against another inspector several years ago, said he sees the city's controversial letter grades as arbitrary and overly-punitive to business owners.
"There are more and more closures happening, which is bad in today's economy. You're putting people out of work," said Vasilis, who started working in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher and busboy when he was a teenager.
"We're at their mercy."
The Strand, which received an A on its last inspection on Jan. 8, has been closed since April 28 as part of the shutdown, which also applies to two Astoria bakeries Vasilis owns called Bakeway NYC, he said.
Vasilis said the inspector had come to take a look at The Strand on Aug. 1, and then came into Bakeway NYC, which is located two doors down. Vasilis questioned whether the inspector was allowed to inspect both locations at once.
According to the Health Department, the inspector needed to check the ice machine and bathroom at Bakeway, two doors down, because they are shared with The Strand.
Vasilis said that while Bakeway sells ice and other items to The Strand, he considers the eateries "two different entities." They also do not share a bathroom.
"I just didn’t want for them to start inspecting both stores every time they would inspect one. It's a tremendous amount of square footage," he said.
In a statement, the Health Department says the owner "used profanity in telling the inspector to leave and threw the inspector's equipment bag at him."
Vasilis, however, denies that he ever threw the bag or even came near the inspector. Instead, he said he eventually told the inspector to leave or he would throw him out, but only "after I nicely asked him a few times" to call his supervisor, he said.
"He pretty much told me to move out of his way," he said.
At some point, the inspector called police, but no formal complaint was filed, the NYPD said.
Bakeway NYC, which had received A's on its graded inspections since February 2011, was given a C when health department officials returned on Dec. 31, according to city data.
The Strand, which earned an A on inspections before and after the dustup, received a C on Aug. 1, with the health department citing "duties of an officer of the Department interfered with or obstructed," data show.
According to city's Health Code, restaurant owners cannot interfere with or obstruct an inspector, the Health Department said.
And Bakeway, the other location on 30th Avenue, received an A on all of its graded inspections since 2011.
Vasilis said he is hoping to have his three eateries reopened the week of May 19, when he is scheduled for another inspection.
"You're not punishing me, you're punishing the 50 people who work for me," he said, of the closure.
It wasn't the first time the Strand's owners took a stand against the health department. In fact, the agency said Vasilis was "warned about obstructing inspections and told they could have their permit suspended or revoked if it happened again."
In 2011, Vasilis said that he told an employee to ask an inspector to wait for him to arrive before starting the check.
When he showed up, the inspector had already begun, so he told him to leave, agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine instead.
Vasilis said inspectors can be inconsistent in their rulings, or dole out violations for minor things, often unrelated to sanitation issues.
"One guy comes in and tells you this is good, and another guy comes in and tells you this is not," he said. "Half the violations have nothing to do with food."
In a statement, the Health Department defended the letter grading system, saying a vast majority of New Yorkers approve of it and crediting it with lowering the number of reported cases of Salmonella by 14 percent.
In March, the City Council proposed a new set of rules for revamping the inspection system, including setting fixed penalties for violations that it says will reduce fines for restaurant owners by 25 percent.
Vasilis says his critique of the system is about more than just fines.
"It's not so much about the money so much as knowing that some guy is going to come in, put a C on your window for whatever reason. You're helpless to it, and then you watch your business fail," he said.
"People put their life savings into these small businesses," he said. "We work hard."