CITY HALL — Restaurant owners railed against the city's new grading system Wednesday, giving the city's health inspectors a resounding "F."
Owners expressed deep frustrations with the controversial grading system, which they said subjects them to unclear rules, inconsistent inspections, rude inspectors and sky-high fines.
Scott Rosenberg, the owner of high-end Sushi Yasuda in Murray Hill, said he’d received three different answers from three different inspectors about rules overseeing sushi rice and how long it can be left out.
“The process by and large has been inconsistent and arbitrary, and has even been adversarial,” he said at a press conference Wednesday, describing one incident last year in which he claimed an inspector threw $10,000 worth of fresh sushi-grade tuna into the trash and doused it with bleach because chefs were preparing it in the traditional way without gloves — a no-no, according to the rules.
”Any sushi chef worth his or her soy sauce will use bare hands for making sushi,” said Rosenberg, who urged the department to change its rules to allow bare-hands preparation at restaurants like his.
“It’s creating a form on mayhem," he said of the current rules.
Rosenberg's experiences mirrored a survey of 1,300 fellow restaurant owners released by the City Council Wednesday ahead of a packed hearing on the matter. The report found significant dissatisfaction with the system, which forces restaurants to post letter grades in their windows corresponding to how many health violation points they receive.
A majority — 66 percent — of "A"-graded restaurant owners who responded to the survey rated the letter-grading system as “poor.” Just 1.6 percent of respondents rated it as “excellent,” and only 3 percent rated it as “very good.”
Some complained their names were being tarnished for inconsequential violations, such as having the door open when receiving shipments, letting staff drink water or coffee during shifts, or failing to store utensils the right way, Council staffers said.
Most owners also said the fines — and the cost of hiring lawyers and consultants to avoid them — have increased their operating costs, with 68 percent saying they had increased costs “significantly.”
“The small operator can’t afford it,” said Herb Wetanson, a 50-year industry veteran who owns 10 "A"-graded restaurants in the city, including several Dallas BBQ and Tony's DiNapoli locations. He claimed he’d spent at least $250,000 on fines, lawyers and consultants since the grades were introduced.
Restaurant fines have been rising dramatically, soaring from $27,610 in fiscal year 2007 to $42,392 in 2011 — a 53.5 percent spike, according to the Department of Health — a figure some Council members equated to “extortion.”
Wetanson said part of the problem is the attitude of inspectors.
“These people come into our premises as enemies,” he said, accusing inspectors of trying to catch owners “with their pants down.”
Instead, inspectors should be working as partners with restaurants to help them improve, he said.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who launched the survey in early January to address what she described as “mounting and persistent concerns” among owners, said the complaints made it clear that changes are needed.
“The grade in the window has to be meaningful in order for the system to work,” she said, adding that many restaurant owners have been made to “feel like criminals.”
Health Department officials, meanwhile, slammed the survey as nothing but an "online complaint box," because it was administered on the web and did not force participants to enter their names, allowing anyone to enter, including owners especially angry about their fines.
Quinn acknowledged criticism that the survey was not scientific, but said the results nonetheless revealed a need for improvement, including clearer rules and steps to improve the relationship between the Health Department and owners, such as hiring an ombudsman who might be able to investigate complaints.
Others suggested better differentiating between critical and non-critical violations, and providing more information to consumers about precisely what a restaurant had done wrong.
“I don’t want to get rid of the grades," Quinn said. "We want to make them better."
But Health Commissioner Thomas Farley largely defended the system, arguing during the hearing that the city's regulations have improved the safety of restaurants, driving down cases of salmonella and other food-borne illnesses.
"The overall system I believe is working,” he said, arguing that the city has no intention of lowering its standards to make it easier for restaurants to comply.
“The steps restaurants have to take to prepare food safely are not difficult to understand,” he continued, adding that inspectors are already highly trained and that owners have multiple opportunities to prove themselves.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday also defended the ratings, accusing critics of failing to live up to the city's standards.
“I think the fact is that that there are some people that complain because they don’t want to keep their restaurants clean," he said, after releasing a survey that showed overwhelming public support for the grades.
"They 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, and that’s just simply unacceptable."