As the food simmers on the hot ‘tawa’ or a round griddle at Ali’s Roti Shop in East Flatbush, the anger against the unfair violations by the health inspection agencies also seethes. There are over 800 restaurants in Brooklyn and they all fight for one thing- ‘letter grading’ by the agencies like the Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH). The grading determines the fate of their business and livelihood.
A report released by the then Public Advocate Bill De Blasio in February 2013 revealed that the health inspection agencies namely- DCA and the DOHMH have been slapping a lot of small businesses in the outer boroughs with unfair violations. This has resulted in shutting down of many restaurants in the neighborhood of East Flatbush.
Between the fiscal year 2010 and 2012, DCA increased inspections by 66 percent, increased violations issued by 153 percent, and increased revenue from fines by 102 percent in the outer boroughs and the DOHMH increased inspections by 55 percent to 98,176 visits, increased violations issued by 73 percent and increased revenue from fines by 90 percent, the report said.
Mr. Hassan Bakiriddin, the Chairperson of the Commerce Committee on the community board 17 of the East Flatbush area charged that many of these restaurants are being discriminated upon. “We have noticed that many of the restaurant owners who are being unfairly fined belong to the minorities,” he said.
Violations like the leftover food on the hot plate or the oven are defined as ‘rat droppings’ and a fly entering the restaurant as soon as the inspector enters the venue have been nickel-and-diming the small business. “Our restaurant was shut and we were preparing our meal which still had to be put in the silver (sic) from the kitchen, the inspectors fined us for the temperature, but it was still in the kitchen,” says Natasha Bahadoorsingh, Manager at Ali’s Roti Shop.
The Public Advocate’s report found that small businesses end up “paying more frequently for smaller and smaller offences and the aggregate effect is devastating to the city’s small businesses.”
The inspection has been very arbitrary and is heavily subjective of the inspector. In the category “Non-Food Surface Improperly Constructed”, many argue that this is where the inspectors have the freedom of penalizing the restaurant the most. The small and frequent fines and visits have jeopardized the small businesses even resulting in shutting down of facilities. The continual pressure of getting the ‘A’ grade from these agencies exerts a lot of pressure on the owners.
In August the City Council agreed to lower the fines so they would not cripple smaller restaurants. Under the new system “60 percent of all violations will be set to the minimum $200 fine, and many of the most commonly issued violations will be reduced by between 15-50 percent from the current fine average,” according to the The New York City Council press release. We’ll have to wait and see what effects such changes have on East Flatbush’s restaurants like Ali’s Roti Shop.