On Being Mistaken For a Restaurant Safety Inspector (And Four Crazy Things We Learned About Restaurant Grading)

This morning, we were in a café near our home that we go to very infrequently. Walking up to the counter we studied the menu for a moment before ordering a coffee.

"False alarm!" the barista (who turned out to also be the owner) barked to his colleague.

"What false alarm?" we inquired.

"We thought you were a health inspector."

Oh my, we thought. We must change our wardrobe if that's the vibe we're giving off.

Turns out the café (we'll keep the name to ourselves, as the owner and the NYC health inspector we finally met were quite forthcoming with information while not knowing where we work) had already had an initial inspection and they were awaiting a follow-up. Still, despite the fact we were dressed in kind of industrial-looking clothes and carrying a manila file folder, we were a little annoyed to have been confused for being a health inspector.

And, the staff kept asking us if we were working undercover. (Perhaps we always are in the journalism field, but still.) They seemed to think we might announce ourselves at any moment. We were planning to prank them as we paid our bill and say, yes, we were from the Department of Health, it had all been a ruse, and it was time to show us what was under the sink.

But, right before we could, our plans were dashed. The proprietor held up an "A" with pride, showing that the inspector had in fact come and that they'd passed with flying colors.

This surprised us, because we'd had our eyes out for such a person. We hadn't noticed anyone or anything out of the ordinary in the small café until then.

Perhaps it was because the inspector was completely inconspicuous. She was not dressed unlike us, was about our age, and had an easy air about her. (We stopped being so offended for being mistaken for someone in this line of work, if this is what they all look like.)

We talked with the inspector and she was quite chatty about her job and what it entails. Some interesting things we learned:

1. After a city inspector comes the first time, they come two more times. They give the restaurateur a time frame of when it will happen. This café was aware the next inspection would happen with a number of days. And, although it already got an "A" and the owner framed it with pride this morning, a second inspection will be happening tonight between 4 and 7 p.m.

2. Nothing related to a dog is allowed on the premises. This café would put a bowl for water out in front for dogs. They got a citation for having that bowl stored in a storage closet. Nothing related to "the presence of animals or animal food" is allowed inside a food establishment. (You can still weather this infraction and get an "A," though, apparently.)

3. Regarding no. 2, "What about bodega cats?" the owner wanted to know. The city inspector said that bodegas were a state issue, not a city one. Even though bodega owners (no. 3 on the Voice list of the 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers) may serve bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, and coffee, the city inspector said, they are considered food stores and not food service providers because 90 percent of their revenue comes from selling groceries. (We find that figure hard to believe at our corner deli.)

4. The inspector didn't look like what you'd expect an inspector to look like. She was young, chatty, friendly, and very likable. She said she had to mark the infraction about the food bowl, but as if to make the owner feel better, she admitted she'd gotten a ticket once for having a pet not in a pet carrier in the subway once.

If the café does well tonight for their follow-up, the inspector said, they shouldn't have to come back for a year.

@steven_thrasher | sthrasher@villagevoice.com

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