HELL'S KITCHEN — On paper, Cafe Forant was doing everything right.
The tiny French-inspired restaurant developed a devoted following in the neighborhood over its seven years, along with a robust catering business.
On weekends, there were lines for its sit-down brunch. It has a four-star rating and glowing comments on Yelp from many who enjoy its laid-back atmosphere, organic food and open kitchen where you can see your meal being made.
But the cafe at 449 W. 51st St. was shut down after an inspection by the Health Department on Nov. 14. It's since re-opened, but won't stay so for long.
Owners Carolyn Montgomery Forant and Lea Forant plan to shut it down in January.
"We had a great run, but we're closing down because of the New York City Health Department," said Carolyn Forant as she scrubbed a set of pots on Tuesday.
"We're never going to succeed with them the way they are."
The Forants said that since the city implemented a new restaurant grading system in 2010, Health Department inspectors were more interested in racking up fines than giving small restaurants a fair grade. That critique echoes concerns many other restaurateurs and even City Council members have expressed in the past.
The latest fine was $4,600, they said, which is hard to recoup by selling Croque Monsieurs for $12.95.
"The big guys can afford a fine or two," Carolyn Forant said.
"These inspectors come in here, they look for a little thing, and they charge you," Lea Forant added.
The inspector that shut the restaurant down issued them 46 violation points for issues like keeping cold food outside of a refrigerator, along with evidence of mice and live roaches, according to Health Department records.
Carolyn Forant said the inspector found over 160 mouse droppings, but blamed the issue on their landlord, who she said neglects taking care of the building's basement.
"There's sewage and vermin, always — he just neglected the building," she said.
"As soon as we saw mice come through, we asked people to leave."
The restaurant tried to fill in holes the mice came through, and pleaded with the inspector to reduce the fines or issue some to the landlord, but they did not.
Last year, an inspector fined them for keeping ingredients on a shelf without doors. After buying a cabinet, the same inspector gave them another fine because it wasn't locked.
The constant fines made it impossible to save for retirement — or even for their children's' college education.
"We have a classic middle American dream and we've been squashed by them again and again," Carolyn Forant said.
Veronica Lewin, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said that the aim of restaurant grading is to bolster food safety, not to generate profits.
"The majority of restaurants that uphold high standards of cleanliness and food safety are not paying fines," she said in a statement.
"In fact, 82 percent of restaurants are now posting “A” grades in their window, up from 65 percent in January 2011. Our goal is to see every restaurant post an A grade."
The point is moot to the Forants, who plan to close up shop with a three-day party celebrating the sort of food that's made them a neighborhood mainstay for seven years.
"When you get beaten about the head and shoulders all the time, you'll eventually have enough," Lea Forant said.