Mom-and-Pop Cafes Gird For More City Regulation

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As she sliced a raw jumbo shrimp and dropped it into her sweet coconut calypso sauce, Siobhan Letchford said her customers at The Islands know she runs a clean kitchen. They can’t help but notice – the homely Jamaican joint in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn that Letchford owns and operates is so small that diners pass within six feet of the frying pan as soon as they open the front door.

Prospective diners may begin to prejudge her as soon as next year, though, when the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene posts letter grades showing restaurant inspection results. While The Islands would presently get a B according to its latest inspection score, in 2007 it would have received a C. And a C grade may keep customers away—in Los Angeles, where inspectors have been handing out letter grades for a decade, restaurants earning Cs have lost revenue.

Although restaurants are already losing budget-conscious customers to brown bags and home cooking, the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg have chosen this moment to propose new food safety regulations. In February, Council passed a resolution requiring restaurants to post a sign about food allergies. Then last month, mayor Bloomberg proposed revamping restaurant inspections, including the new letter grading system.

These proposed rules, especially the one about letter grades, have caused small business experts and industry groups to ask whether they’ll hurt mom-and-pop restaurateurs.

“It will put some restaurants out of business, no question about it,” said Prof. Edward Rogoff, a minority entrepreneurship expert at Baruch College. “The question you really need to answer is, ‘Is it worth it worth it for the health benefit?’”

City officials and health experts say that’s an easy “yes.” Manhattan Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, lead sponsor of the allergy sign bill, said there are so many residents with food allergies that it’s imperative to educate restaurant workers. “The issue is really a life-or-death one for 300,000 New Yorkers,” she said.

The allergy sign law, which passed the City Council by a vote of 46 to 2, requires restaurants to post a sign listing the “big eight” foods that trigger allergic reactions: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. While this sign will be in the “back of the house,” or out of the customers’ view, it will add to the 24 other signs required by city agencies, many of which are in customers’ plain sight.

“It can get to be too much. Overwhelming sometimes. Where are you going to find the space?” said Leonie Jenkins, who owns a Golden Krust franchise on 8th Avenue, near the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. The ubiquitous red and white choking poster, right next to the oxtail special sign, loomed over her customers one recent afternoon.

More signs, or any additional regulation affecting small restaurants, is misguided during the recession, said Myungsuk Lee, the president of the Korean American Chamber of Commerce of Greater New York. “This year and next year are the most difficult times for immigrant restaurant owners. They’re just struggling, trying to survive,” said Lee. The health department “shouldn’t enact these types of new regulation. It should think of more positive ways to help small businesses.”

Restaurant traffic throughout the city was down three percent in 2008, according to The NPD Group, a leading market research firm.
But opposition to food safety regulation in the name of business doesn’t make sense, says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University. “These are irrelevant to the economy,” Nestle said. “There are a lot of things that will shutter mom-and-pop stores, but I can’t think of a food safety regulation that will do it.”

Letter grades actually boost revenues at the cleanest restaurants, said Jessica Scaperotti, a city health department spokeswoman. According to a UCLA study, grade-A restaurants in Los Angeles saw a 6 percent increase in revenue compared to before the introduction of grade cards.

The two main changes proposed for the food inspection process in New York City are the mandatory posting of letter grades, expected in July 2010, and more inspections for restaurants that receive lower scores. Currently, restaurants are inspected once a year. Under the new system, restaurants receiving an A will still be inspected once a year, those with a B twice a year, and those with a C three times a year. At the time of each visit, the health inspector will immediately issue a new letter grade, to be displayed in the window of the store.

This immediate judgment is a bone of contention for the New York State Restaurant Association. The lobbying group for restaurant owners recently began negotiating with the city to limit which violations would contribute to a lower grade, said Andrew Rigie, director of operations at the association’s New York City chapter. For instance, if a restaurant fails to have a permit displayed properly, it shouldn’t be docked from an A to a B, said Rigie.

“In this time when fewer people may be eating out,” he said, “a sign that may deter any customer to any type of restaurant is definitely a concern.”

Back at The Islands, Siobhan Letchford isn’t too concerned. She immigrated from Jamaica eight years ago and has steadily built a clientele since then. “It won’t affect my customers who have been with me for years.”

– Mike Reicher