I hired a new chef who is telling me that we need to make certain upgrades and improvements to satisfy the health department. We were inspected without a problem. Do you think it is a good idea to invite them in to give their opinion or is that just asking for trouble?
– Restaurant Owner, New York, NY
You are asking for a non-penalty consultation from the health department. Some municipalities do have such a thing: you ask a health inspector to come in for advice. Unless they see a critical violation, they will point out things that need to be improved before their next inspection and will return to inspect some time later. There is typically a nominal fee for this service, less than a third-party consultant would charge. To my knowledge, New York City hasn’t developed anything like this, although I hear that something is in the works.
The risk of using that strategy, of course, is that the inspector may see something that in her or his opinion puts public health in jeopardy and may close you on the spot. They also spend extra time doing the non-penalty inspection so are well informed about your problems before they officially inspect.
A better solution might be to hire one of many sanitation consultants or third-party auditors, typically former health inspectors who are familiar with the codes and will inspect you the way they would have inspected as a health department employee. Since they work for you, whatever they find is constructive, not punitive.
Finally, remember that health departments are not monolithic evil entities committed to your misery. They are made of people. Try calling them without even giving the name of your restaurant. Simply ask about the concerns your chef raised and see if they will advise you. In general, inspectors want food to be safe. If they can prevent a problem with a conversation, they will.