“A” hAppy new yeAr?

The New Year’s celebration for me has always been a bittersweet one.  I am  a proponent of the cycles of life based on one’s own birthday.  That’s why I celebrate birthdays to the fullest, a new outlook on the year beginning from that point.  To pick January 1st and celebrate the date as important?  Well, let’s just say I’m glad for those who want to celebrate it and will gladly play along.

This particular holiday brought about anxiety for me because I had, yet again, another appointment at the DOH on Monday, January 3rd.  What a way to start off the New Year!  I was ready for the worst, based on my previous encounters and fines ($3000.00 and counting), even though I had good defenses for the majority of the violations, and had corrected what was asked of me.

This time around I had an afternoon appointment for which I showed up fifteen minutes early for.  The room seemed half empty, as opposed to the madhouse it normally is, with owners complaining and overworked, understaffed workers moving at a frenetic pace.  Maybe the lack of attendance was due to the proximity to the first.  Perhaps owners postponed their appointments to avoid the inevitable, too early in 2011. Fines.

I kept a calm attitude, reading about Colonel Roosevelt by Edmund Morris and listening to Nina Simone on the IPod.  Before I got in a groove, my name was called by a judge (only a 1.5 hour wait), and I knew from first glance that this woman was gentle and fair, unlike my previous experiences, when I could tell I was doomed from the start.

I was ready to say my peace when she turned on that tape recorder the DOH uses to CYA.  But the judge smiled and was ready to address the first violation when I switched my strategy.  I decided to ask her several questions regarding my inspections and the rules for visits, and she happily whipped out documentation and answered my questions to the best of her ability.  Her patience really shone through, and I believed that I might actually get a fair shake.

We went through each violation and got stuck on one violation which turns out does not count towards points against me.  The particular issue is over the bread I receive from Tomcat bakery for the restaurant.  As per DOH regulation, nutritional information must accompany products that may be made with trans fats from outside sources.  No points, but a violation and a sure fine.  The judge offered me the opportunity to bring this info the next time around so the violation could be dismissed.  I agreed and we adjourned.  I suddenly realized that when I returned I would sit in front of a different judge, and I almost leaped out of my seat.  Whoa!  No way, I said, let’s finish this process now.  In my mind, under no circumstances did I want to roll the dice with a different judge at a later date.

We finished, having spent over half an hour in session, and I took my seat awaiting the certain bad news.  After 20 minutes of nail biting, my name was called.  The room was emptying out.  I was charged $475.00 for two violations in total.   Compared to the past, this was a steal, perhaps a sign of things to come for 2011. As I made the line to pay, the clerk said, here’s your “A”, and handed me a card with the large all important letter.   I looked at it and felt relief, and then nothing.  Someone congratulated me and I replied that I had paid for it, like everyone else.

I have had a couple of days to reflect on the entire journey to this “A” rating.  I have many opinions and feel mystified by the whole process, but the important points still ring loudly in my head.  The system is designed so that owners are basically in the dark about compliance and are set up to pay large fines to feed this form of stealth tax.  No one without a law degree could possibly read the code and interpret it.  It must be streamlined into a viable general checklist to follow fairly.  If violations are genuinely corrected, why must the owners still pay fines?  The judging system is set up so that the continuity of fairness varies from judge to judge.  A panel would be better served in the name of fairness.

Ultimately, the system needs to be changed so that the DOH and owners work collaboratively to maintain clean and safe environments for the public.

A seminar and certificate on a “checklist” of what owners need to comply with before opening should be offered.  This is different than the food protection certificate.  For example, if I were instructed that if I buy bread from some place else, the nutritional info needs to be included and displayed for the public.

A checklist should be created for owners and inspectors that can be used for keeping the establishments to code.

If violations are assessed and the owner can show correction, no fines should be assessed.  This can be verified by inspector visit using the checklist.

One judge is not enough for fair assessment.  Three should be used.

All of these moves would help to show faith in small business economy and keep the integrity of New York in tact.

I would like to thank all who have supported me throughout my upcoming three years of operation, and a special thanks to those who contacted and helped me personally in relation to solving my problems with the DOH.

A prosperous and healthy New Year for all.

Chef Mateo