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City’s restaurant grades bad for biz: Uncle Jack’s

Even with an A displayed on the Bell Boulevard steakhouse's front door, Uncle Jack's management still calls for reforms to the health inspection system. By Phil Corso
TimesLedger Newspapers

After more than a year of striving for an A grade, one Bayside restaurant owner is giving bad marks to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to regulate health standards in eateries.

The city-imposed grading system has seen some backlash from restaurant owners, with businesses saying it has cost them to make the grade.

William Degel owns Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse on Bell Boulevard and said he created entirely new positions for health liaisons at all three of his eateries in the metropolitan area to oversee standards and ensure A grades during city Department of Health inspections.

“It’s very costly and you have to always be on top of it,” Degel said.

Degel said that though it is good to oversee restaurants’ eating and cooking conditions, the Bloomberg administration was using the system as a revenue stream, with consistently new regulations that are impossible to keep up with.

According to Degel, what may have passed during one inspection might later on become unacceptable, lowering a restaurant’s grade.

“It’s not easy for stores to find out about these new rules and regulations,” Degel said. “The only way to learn about them is by receiving fines.”

Since implementing the letter grade system, Degel said he has received more than $5,000 in fines between his three locations.

“There’s no question that the letter grade system has had a negative impact on the restaurant business,” said Andrew Rigie, executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association. “It created a very shameful and tense environment in which to run a restaurant.”

Rigie said that while almost all business owners support health and safety inspections, the goal could be achieved through a more cooperative and educational inspection process.

He testified in a letter to City Hall that the city should revise the grading system if it does not wish to abolish it. Suggestions included removing the C letter grade because, though it is still safe and sanitary, the grade might connote to the public that the restaurant is unsafe, translating into a loss of business.

Rigie also said the city should consider amending the points system used during inspections to better reflect the nature of differing violations.

Bloomberg defended the grading system, which his administration imposed, at a news conference earlier this month.

“They think it’s OK to have mice and roaches and dirt and not have people wash their hands before they come back from the bathroom,” Bloomberg said. “That’s just simply unacceptable, and their complaints are going to fall on deaf ears, I can tell you that. We’re not going to change.”

Rigie said the mayor’s assessments were inaccurate.

“For a mayor who often touts his efforts to make New York City more business-friendly, these comments appear completely out of touch with the reality facing 99 percent of the small business owners we represent.”

In trying to earn the A grades all three of his eateries display in their front windows, Degel said the Department of Health was not doing enough to educate restaurant owners on how to sustain sanitary conditions.

It creates an atmosphere that Rigie said is difficult to thrive in.

“Right now you have a model where the industry feels under attack and no matter what they do to ensure high safety standards, they will be issued fines,” Rigie said. “They run their businesses under constant fear of posting a scarlet letter.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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