Two high-profile health inspections in New York City sparked headlines earlier this year when Dominique Ansel Bakery of Cronut fame and Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred Per Se were reprimanded by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for infractions ranging from improper holding temperatures to a mouse sighting. As a result, Ansel recemented his basement and did a deep-clean. And Keller’s C was bumped up to a B upon reinspection; he is appealing to have his A grade restored.
Justified or not, the cases have shined light on the health department’s methods, which operators have contended can be both subjective—inspectors have had leeway to add points for severity—and arbitrary, for example, flagging a condition that previously had not raised an eyebrow.
Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York Restaurant Association, says, “Small things can be blown out of proportion, a setup to potentially lose business.” The association pressed for changes at the health department. Now, “any nonfood-related violation that was previously inspected [without generating demerits] can be nullified.” The department also lowered fines (which brought in $52 million two years ago), vowed to be more collaborative and assigned fixed points.
New York City is just one example. But its overhaul could be having a ripple effect, with authorities elsewhere, including Knoxville, Tenn., and Orange County, Calif., implementing or weighing similar concessions.
While a James Beard medal and budget for consultants fall out of reach for most, it’s possible to bounce back from a bad grade:
Work with inspectors. Make time to answer questions and challenge, positively, trigger points. Some corrections can be made during an inspection, resulting in no demerits.
Get help. In New York City, the Chinatown Business Improvement District noticed a high rate of C grades for its restaurants and delved deeper. “Some things got lost in translation,” says Patrick Kwan, communications director. The group held workshops and hired a consultant to help operators understand the process and conducted mock inspections. “We help them look for small things [that can be a big fix],” he says.
Be transparent. Any press release should express caution and reassurance. Says Christopher Chesnutt, who weathered a Hepatitis A scare at his New York City restaurant Alta last year, “We had to respond logically, formulate that we were sorry for any inconvenience and explain that nothing happened, nobody got sick.”