One Minute Drill – The Health Department Shuffle

Ah.. New York City! The land where every other storefront is seemingly a bar or restaurant. So many choices – so little time. There are thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of bars and restaurants in this town. It makes for some ridiculously difficult eating/drinking choices. The NYC Department of Health is charged with ensuring that every single one of those establishments is in compliance with standardized Food Handling and Sanitary Practices. The trouble is, there are only  a few dozen Inspectors on the streets. It can be months or even years between (supposedly random) inspections –  if they ever occur at all. An unfortunate consequence is the “Security by Obscurity” that many bars/restaurants follow as a result.

That environment has lead to a few more or less standardized practices – some of which I’m going to shed some light on. The majority of venues I’ve worked in have documented food handling policies and are damn near O.C.D. about keeping clean, constantly driving their Gestapo floor managers to beat their F.O.H. and B.O.H. staff with the Enforcement Stick. On the flip side, there are a whole lot of dirt-ass owners and managers in this town that simply do not adhere to basic tenants of cleanliness. They know they’re not going to get inspected often, and casually let the resident rats go about their business, and repeatedly violate the public by doing stupid shit like serving week-old, redressed, cooked chicken.

So, a couple of years ago, the NYC DOH came up with an idea to shore up their floundering inspections and kick some dirt-asses into compliance. Their idea was The Letter Grade – very much like The Scarlet Letter (if you got anything but an “A”). It’s a fairly simple concept: (1) randomly inspect bars/clubs/lounges/hotels/restaurants (2) hit them with “points” for every violation (3) establish level of points and corresponding, descending letter grades for a rising number of points (4) require every in-scope establishment to prominently display their letter grade in the front window (5) shutter a venue if they repeatedly got hit with too many points or had seriously egregious violations from the get go.

Owners strenuously objected. Their cries fell on the deaf ears of the J-Walking, CCW, andBig-Gulp-banning, Bloombergistan administration. Blame this guy: Thomas Farley, and his bossman, Mike. All things considered, the current setup benefits consumers a great deal. It keeps hospitality businesses on their toes – making sure their ships are in consistently in order. The D.O.H. did actually hire more inspectors and amp up the inspection frequencies along with the rating changes. Kudos.

Here’s the major catch though: The overwhelming majority of bars and restaurants do not actually follow all the rules all of the time. What the fuck? Yep, it’s true. Let me explain.

I’m a bartender, not a chef. So I’ll focus on the booze side of the house.

Among other things, the D.O.H. hits you with points for all manner of bar violations. Here are the most common”

  • Glassware use in consumable ice bins
  • Standing water
  • Wet rags anywhere but in a dedicated red bucket
  • Red bucket without sanitizing agent and proper Ph level
  • No disposable gloves for cutting or serving fruit
  • Dairy and food items in beer/wine coolers (bar coolers are typically not set to be as cold ad dedicated food refrigerators)
  • Uncovered straws on the bar or in BevNap holders
  • Uncovered sip-straws
  • Excessive garbage on the floor
  • Uncovered condiment trays (they’re supposed to be covered 24/7 when not in actual use)
  • Lack of tongs for each individual condiment or condiment tray (you’re not allowed to garnish drinks with bare hands)
  • Soda block coolers in direct contact with consumable ice
  • Absence of plastic or metal ice scoops at every ice station and at every ice machine
  • Absence of ice scoop holders at every ice station and at every ice machine
  • Absence of soap dispenser and paper towels at every sink
  • No dedicated hand-washing sink
  • Using dedicated hand-washing sink as a dump
  • Open food, drink, mixers, condiments in coolers
  • No date labels on refrigerated consumables
  • Trash/fruit in the speed rails
  • No “Employees must wash wands before returning to work” above or next to sinks
  • Uncovered employee beverages behind the bar
  • Any items on the bar floor other than bleach/sanitizing bucket (all other items must be at least 6 inches off the floor)
  • Dead bugs
  • Conspicuous evidence of rats or mice (read: poop). Typically, this will get you shut down immediately.
  • Food items stored at inappropriate temperatures (I believe refrigerated items must be kept no higher than 39 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Failure to conspicuously display current letter grade or “Pending” status
  • Fruit flies in condiments and/or liquor bottles

In reality, a number of these rules are physically impossible to maintain whilst running an actual profitable business. The tong thing and wrapped straws are prime examples. When’s the last time you went to a packed New York City bar, and watched the bartender slowly peel a straw wrapper for each and every drink order? How many times have you witnessed bartenders stick their paws in condiment trays? You kind of have to do so when you’re slammed.

Yes, we handle fruit, glasses, wash water, and dirty money all night with bare hands. It’s inevitable. I do wash my hands frequently. Regardless, cross-contamination happens. However, in nearly 18 years of bartending, I’ve yet to have a single customer complain nor get provide evidence of becoming ill as a direct result. Sure it’s possible – but the possibilities a very low in my opinion. The issue, again, that the health benefits of being a stickler about every single rule, all the time, do not outweigh the operational requirements of the bar.

Furthermore, there is a directly proportional correlation between the operational filth and exactly how busy the the bar/restaurant seems to be. That’s because staffing is just about never adjusted (or increased) as it gets busier. Conversely, F.O.H. staff are often cut if it happens to be a slow evening. The busier it gets, the more trough waste-water and used napkins fall fall in the ice bin, the less often we wash our hands, the quicker (and less attentively) we make cocktails, and the less we look like Michael Jordan in our attempts to get trash into the actual trash can. It’s just the way it is.

You will typically get far better, cleaner service, better tasting/looking food and drinks, and a more engaged bartender with better conversation on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon as opposed to a Saturday night at 11pm. That’s kind of obvious no? You’d be shocked as to the frequency with which guests throw hissy fits over their pasta not being perfectly Al Dente or their Makers Old Fashioned being “different” than they had it the last time even though there is a one hour wait for a table and no available seats at the bar.

How the hell are we supposed to deal with the Health Department when we’re slammed? Surely, no NYC owner wants to risk losing his/her “A” Letter Grade. That would be business suicide. The answer: “The One Minute Drill.” WTF is a “One Minute Drill?” It has nothing to do with football. Every venue subject to D.O.H. inspection has an official, but unwritten (for obvious reasons), procedure for dealing with unplanned inspections. Inspectors have a nasty habit  Doormen get on walkie-talkie with the managers. The managers radio the staff. The staff go batshit crazy and start doing things like (1) covering everything which needs to be covered (2) dumping food and condiments which are not at appropriate temperatures or in approved refrigeration units (3) trashing unwrapped/uncovered food service items (4) throwing out lingering rags (5) displaying only approved food service utensils and garnishes (6) removing all items from ice and (7) donning gloves.

There’s a whole lot more involved… but generally, the staff scramble – within a minute or two – to address every violation noted a few paragraphs above. If all goes well, the inspectors leave happy or the bar receives 1 or 2 dings at most – hopefully, maintaining their letter grade. When the inspectors leave, the routine returns to “normal.”

Again, I have to stress that a whole lot of the “rules” are simply impossible to adhere to while running a certain type of bar (i.e., a successful bar that makes good money). That doesn’t mean the bar isn’t clean and the public shouldn’t frequent it. Most businesses put their best foot forward and are generally very safe from a consumption standpoint.

And there you have The One Minute Drill.

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2 thoughts on “One Minute Drill – The Health Department Shuffle

  1. I wash my hands easily 20 times a night at work and still feel guilty about manhandling people’s beverage garnishes and straws. I do notice that feeling is significantly reduced when I’m busy. Taking care of business always gets priority over nitiness
    How did you fare during the storm mess?

    • Yeah. Me too M. Not much we can do about it – especially when we’re slammed. Better than random douchebags sticking their hands in the condiment tray, bobbing for apples.