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East Harlem Restaurants Graded Worst in Manhattan

November 13, 2012

East Harlem’s McDonald’s received a C grade by the city’s health inspectors (Photo by Lucy Pawle)

Read this on The Uptowner

Holding a half-eaten Happy Meal, Mike Serrano, 45, walked out of McDonald’s in East Harlem looking satisfied. He had picked up some fries and a McRib for his daughter, but couldn’t resist buying supper for himself. What he didn’t know was that the restaurant was rated C, the lowest grade the New York City Health Department can give without closing an establishment.

Serrano’s smile swiftly turned to a disgusted expression as he digested the news. He hadn’t noticed the C posted in the window – “They always have posters in the window, it just blends in,” he said. According to the Health Department’s website, this McDonald’s on East 110th Street was found to have mice and flies at its latest inspection in October.

“I need to pay more attention to these things,” Serrano said.

East Harlem’s restaurants rank the lowest uptown and in Manhattan overall, according to the Health Department’s grades. Its most recent statistics show that in Central and West Harlem, 66 percent of restaurants have an A rating and 1.6 percent a C. In East Harlem, 58.7 percent of food establishments have an A rating, while 3.5 percent have a C.

Introduced just over a year ago, the restaurant grading system has caused controversy. The Health Department insists it helps maintain hygiene standards and forces restaurants to improve their game. But  New York State Restaurants Association Executive Vice President Andrew Rigie disagrees.

“The current system is subjective and very complex, leading to confusion and unfair grading,” he said. “It is a snapshot in time, but the sign hangs in the window for many months.” The association represents 5,000 eateries.

It’s rare to find a C-graded restaurant in East Harlem displaying the sign. Most have “grade pending” signs – which they are legally entitled to display if they’re challenging the decision – or no sign at all.

Bigger and older buildings are more likely to get lower grades because of difficulties in keeping them clean, Rigie said. East Harlem restaurant owners agree.

“I have a large building and it’s very old so there’s more to inspect,” said Erik Mayor, 36, owner of Milk Burger on Third Avenue. “The probability of something being there is much greater, and we also have a lot of pests in the area – just look at the asthma rates.”

At Restaurant Cuchifritos nearby, Maria Testal, 27, was preparing for this weekend’s opening. Her family owns numerous local restaurants and she agreed that the building plays a huge role in hygiene. “The buildings are old and the construction is old which makes it much easier for rats to come,” she said. But with her years of experience, she was confident her place would rate an A, “no problem at all.”

Open for nine months, Milk Burger, until last week, had a “grade pending” sign in its window because Mayor was contesting his C rating. It won an A, but if Mayor hadn’t prevailed, he insisted, his restaurant would have been short-lived. “People just won’t go there,” he said. “It plays a critical role.”

Mayor said he spent a lot of time in court fighting about $1,500 in fines from his C-graded inspection. Both the grade and fines cause immense anxiety, he said, because inspectors keep returning regularly. But he is delighted with his new A, which means inspections will be fewer. “It’s a year that I can conduct my business without having to look over my shoulder,” he said.

Mayor argued that East Harlem was challenging for businesses. “If you can make it in the industry here you can make it anywhere because it’s so brutal here,” he said. Poverty is a big factor, he explained. Employing enough staff and finding hours in the day to focus on health and hygiene can cost money that some restaurateurs feel they can’t afford to lose.

Serrano agreed. “You get what you pay for in East Harlem,” he said. And people don’t want to pay very much. “If people stopped going to restaurants with low grades, then things would change.”

Mayor seems right to be worried. “If I saw a C, I wouldn’t go in and I don’t think anyone else I know would,” said Carlos Baez, 48. But Baez was sitting in McDonald’s and like Serrano, had failed to notice the C-rating sign. “It needs to be more visible,” he said. “You just can’t see it.”

Up Third Avenue on 116th Street, Adrian Sanchez, manager of Kahlua’s Café, ensures his team works hard to maintain its A grade. “I talk to my people, my workers, and remind them how important it is,” he said. “If we go down to a B we have less customers and less money.”

But even for restaurants graded A, health violations can bring large fines that many will struggle to pay. Sanchez thinks many restaurants will simply close. “The department needs to give us a break because they ask for ridiculous things,” he said. “Business is tough for everyone, so they should be more understanding and not fine us for things like leaving a door open.”

Rigie said that levying additional fines was “unfair and creates unnecessary anxiety.” How can an A-graded restaurant receive thousands of dollars in fines? he wondered. “Either it’s clean or not.”

Things might change if Rosemary Cruz, 47, is any indication. The East Harlem native and taxi driver regularly eats in the area, but her habits have changed since the grading system’s debut. “I think it’s great they’re grading restaurants,” she said. “I would never eat at a C-grade restaurant, and I’ve stopped going to some places.”

The Health Department insists its inspectors grade East Harlem restaurants as they do any other area of the city. “Every restaurant in New York City is inspected on an individual basis and the neighborhood in which it is located in does not impact its grade,” it said in an emailed statement.

Mayor admitted that he couldn’t entirely blame the inspector for his previous C grade. “Negligence is about 20 percent of the problem, I have to admit,” he said. Having owned restaurants for four years, he said the grading system had made him change his habits. “It does force you to improve an work on your restaurant,” he said.

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