An "A" sanitary grade is a good thing for your restaurant! Patrons will think the food tastes much better! Healthier, too!
No one doing prep work in kitchens, waiting tables, flipping burgers, or steaming milk makes enough money to give a shit about sanitation.Wrong, wrong, all wrong. Restaurants, where people eat and work, are dirty. Food service employees have observed questionable behavior from co-workers, whether it was at their fast-food stint in high school, or their unintentionally permanent job waiting tables. I’m not talking spitting on food or masturbating into the mayonnaise, things that only happen in a Ryan Reynolds' movie. I’m talking food falling under ovens and being sold anyway. I’m talking cutting around mold and cooking gray hamburger meat. These things happen. People aren’t hired in restaurants because of their cleaning skills; they’re hired because they’re cheap, dependable labor, and usually because they have nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do.
No one doing prep work in kitchens, waiting tables, flipping burgers, or steaming milk makes enough money to give a shit about sanitation. If you want people to care, you have to pay them to care. Do I get a pay cut if my station is a little crumby? Do I get a raise if the store looks clean?
It isn’t a source of personal pride to be part of an "A" inspection. That isn’t enough for those of us grinding in the service industry.
And anyone that thinks most restaurants deserve their "A" grade is crazy. What happens on inspection days is frightening.
My boss the other day reminded me that we were scheduled for an inspection soon. I’ve worked food service for over ten years now (not consecutively; my soul hasn’t run screaming from my body). I washed dishes in a Chinese restaurant as my first job, and the pay was $20 a shift. Since then, I’ve made seafood pizzas and Cheesy Gordita Crunches. I’ve grilled paninis in SoHo, and made coffee in Clinton Hill. This current boss asked me to be on my best behavior. Make sure everything is neat for Mr. Inspector. If this system weren’t a sham, this wouldn’t need to be said. Everything would just be as it is. The inspector would walk through a restaurant unimpeded and give a realistic sanitation rating.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve worked at places that hire former inspectors to visit and give practice ratings. These inspectors also offer tips and tricks for beating the system.
If you’re confused about the grading system for New York City restaurants, that makes two of us. I have worked food service in the city for almost two years, with only a passing knowledge of what it takes to be sanitary. Keep hot foods hot, cold foods cold. Never use your hands. Don’t step on someone’s pastry. That kind of thing. There is always the understanding that some manager either has a food handler’s license, is about to take the food handler’s licensing test, or has had a prophecy that they will one day get their food handler’s license. I know I have never had anyone tell me true ways to make my space more sanitary. Tips from bosses are normally about spills or crud. Nothing more.
But what do I know about sanitary conditions? Nothing. Is that a problem? Apparently not. I’m working, aren’t I?
As an employee, you’re told stories about previous inspections, this restaurant-specific folklore. That crazy thing Johnny the barista did to save the day. The way Sally the waitress hid in the storage room with a dirty pot, weeping. How everyone did what was asked of them, as though there was a choice. For everyone that has survived, it becomes a rite of passage. From the tales, you imagine a scene where everyone is screaming and running, cleaning and hiding. Like the place is on fire, but no one can leave.
The first time I experienced a health inspection, I was working in an enormous restaurant in SoHo. We had a code word that everyone knew that meant the inspector was in the building. It was one of the manager’s jobs to stall the inspector in the office while we made a crazed effort to achieve absolute clean.
On inspection day, the word crescendos through the building, passing from one set of lips to the next, until everyone is saying it and everyone knows. (I don’t know if there was a translation for all the Spanish-speaking employees, or if they were required to know only this one word of English.)
All service stops—customers be damned—for the next thirty minutes. Go get your over-priced sandwich somewhere else, we have cleaning to do! Everyone starts wiping down all surfaces. Counters and floors, shelves that no one can remember using. Everything is being thrown away. If anything is questionable, just toss it the fuck out. Everyone wipes and tosses while screaming the word as loud as possible for human lungs.
During my first inspection, I had to sneak out the front door carrying two large bags of sandwiches and salads that had been improperly refrigerated. I had to mill about on the streets of Manhattan with all this food until given the all-clear. I felt like a hungry celebrity’s personal assistant. We couldn’t throw out that much product. I kept hoping the inspector would see me doing this, so I could drop the bags like a drug runner and take off through the streets, never to return.
Why do we do these things for jobs we barely care about? So many people describe their restaurant co-workers as their family, and there is at least a little something to that. Conquering a busy day at work is satisfying. The door is locked at the end of the night and everyone cracks a beer for the final sweep and wipe. Besting a health inspection is like beating a busy day. Just something to make the hours pass until you can drink a beer.
When you’ve worked food service, you realize that nothing is as it seems. Kitchens aren’t Eden, where everything is sterile and beautiful. They’re grimy and smoky, full of sweaty bodies and sexual harassment. Accept the truth.
Get it together, people. When something tastes good, eat. Life’s too short to worry about hand washing or storage temperature. If my favorite taco joint closed because of some sham inspection, I might have to leave New York. They can make my food however they want.
by Steven S. Grassel (@SS_Grassel)