NYC Department of Health Bartender Checklist

How many times have you seen this lovely picture? Bartenders are notorious for this practice. We like to keep our personal sodas cold, our energy bars fresh, and our ice scoops on the ready. What you’re witnessing above is drinking ice contaminated with objects which have zero business being stored as such. The major rub (aside from the obvious health issues)? The Health Department smackdown.

Just about every municipality has some form of Health Department entrusted to regulate, inspect, certify and often impose punitive sanctions on restaurants and bars within their jurisdictions. New York City is no exception. Despite what some may think, every owner knows what’s expected of them. The issue is that many owners constitute the definition of laziness, ignorant bliss, greediness, or live in denial.

Moss rolls downhill. As such, the attitude of ownership rolls downhill too. An establishment’s Directors, Regional Managers, General Managers, Floor Managers, and staff will almost always reflect the attitudes, policies, and enforcement tactics from the top of the pyramid – good or bad. There is often significant disconnect between tiers. Managers often don’t know the nitty-gritty of what really goes on in the trenches.

Bartenders and servers often have the misconception that management is completely clueless as to their challenges, adequate/inadequate tools to perform their jobs, the customer troubles they face, etc. The reality is that most management has significant experience and have spent years in F.O.H. roles. In their management roles however, many in charge either (a) have their hands are tied in terms of what they can do to improve operations or (b) are not cut out for their new leadership roles despite their sometimes stellar abilities as servers or bartenders.

As you move up the ladder, the gap between the interpretation of operations (let’s say between F.O.H. staff and ownership) tends to become significant. Ownership tends to see things very simplistically. They focus on R.O.I – revenue, net income, expenses, payroll and such. They also tend to focus on spoilage factors and not look at operations holistically.

An owner, or director, will casually stroll into the venue on a peak Saturday night at 11:00pm, and demand to know (a) why there is suddenly so much trash and broken glass on the bar floor (b) why there is a container of O.J. in the ice bin or (c) why there are rags on the bar top instead of in the sanitizing buckets. They’ll burst into the kitchen and demand and explanation as to why there sits a pile of 4 old, charred burgers and 3 dried out hockey-puck sirloin steaks. Yet, the kitchen has 30 dupes on the board and has pumped out 250 other covers with no re-fires/returns.

I digress…

With that, let’s look at some easy ways accumulating enough points (a.k.a., getting “dinged”) by the Health Department to either knock you down a few rungs on your Letter Grade or worse, get you shut down completely.

  • Glass In Ice: This is a big one. The D.o.H. insists that an ice scoop only be used to transfer ice from the consumable ice bin (one used to make drinks) to a drinking glass. The issue is that the tendency for bartenders to “save time” by scooping ice directly with a glass grows in proportion to how busy the bar is. From a practical perspective, it’s one thing to scoop ice directly using a rocks or thick Libby glass. It’s quite another (faux pas) to do the same with thinner Snifters, Champagne flutes, wine glasses and thin-walled high-ball glasses like your typical, frosted Collins glass. That’s simply begging for trouble.
  • Ice Bins: Consumable ice bins (those used to make drinks) must never be used to store or chill anything whatsoever. Not juices, nor sodas, nor milk, nor fruit. The CO2/soda-syrup cooling block is not even supposed to be in direct contact with drink ice. Other ice coolers, such as those used for beer bottles, are fine for storage uses. Care must be taken to keep them clearly and physically segregated however.
  • Ice Scoops have certain conditions: (a) they must be made of plastic, stainless steel or aluminum (b) they must not rest in the ice itself but have a dedicated storage container – usually a plastic or metal catch of some sort (c) every consumable ice bin and ice machine must have a dedicated ice scoop and ice scoop storage.
  • Juices: Barkeeps have a terrible habit of keeping Store-n-Pour juices (plastic juice containers) at or near room temperature. Store-n-Pours must be refrigerated or iced somehow but again, not in the drink ice.
  • Sanitizing Buckets: Approved (usually red) “bleach buckets” must be available under every sink behind the bar. The buckets should have a sanitizing solution at an approved pH level and should be used to keep the bar clean. All bar rags must be stored in these buckets when not being used. Clearly, this is another impractical  regulation that’s rarely followed. 
  • Handwashing Sinks: Each individual bar must have a dedicated handwashing sink. Thay sink must have dedicated handsoap as well as towels. They sink cannot have mixed uses such as a Slop Sink.
  • Condiment Trays: All trays must contain fresh fruit and must be covered at all times when not actively used. All Condiment Trays must be accompanied by a nearby set of tongs for accessing fruit and garnishes. NYC D.o.H. does not permit bartenders/servers to garnish drinks with their bare hands. Gloves are acceptable in place of tongs but are obviously not practical. I’m not saying that bartenders use the tongs or that they’re practical. But you’ve got to at least make the effort – make it look good for the inspectors.
  • Fruit Handling: Just like Juan Miguel Perez DeJesus somewhere in the bowels of the kitchen, bartenders are required to follow NYC Food Safety protocols when cutting limes, lemons, oranges and all other items deemed “foods.” That means, you’re required to wear gloves – period. To add insult to injury, bartenders are on the brink of being required to wear hats or hairnets – weird… I know. Do all bartenders/barbacks actually wear gloves every time they cut fruit? Of course not. But, if the G-Man’s inspectors notice this violation, rest assured your bar will get written up.
  • Straws: All straws and sip-straws must be of the wrapped variety. If you ask me, this is a really stupid regulation. It’s completely impractical and honestly – rarely adhered to. Like with handling condiment tray fruit directly, in 19 years behind the stick, I’ve never run into a single guest who’s taken issue with this practice. Similarly, as a guest myself on the other side, it’s never, ever bothered me in the slightest.
  • Labeled Consumables: In your bar’s refrigerators should be stored fruit, juices, preparations, and other consumables only if they are (a) tightly covered and (b) date-labeled.
  • Dairy: Unbeknownst to some, beer refrigerators are typically configured to maintain a slightly higher temperature than their food storage counterparts. Therefore, storing milk, cream, cheese and other food products in beer coolers is typically a no-no. 
  • Standing Water: At the end of the evening, absolutely no container, vessel, trough, mat, catch, or anything else should have standing water. Standing water (or worse, juice, liquor, beer) is a breeding ground for bacteria and fruit flies.
  • Fruit Flies: I hate these things. They’re notorious for loving certain Whiskies as well as most of the sugar-rich liquors. The easiest way to ward them off is to follow documented end-of-night cleaning procedures and use screened pourers.
  • Excessive Trash: Many bartenders are revolting slobs. The problem is significantly exacerbated as the bar volume grows busier. Sometimes, they won’t even attempt to throw napkins, fruit, food and such in the trash, opting instead for the floor. If an inspector comes in and notes excessive filth on the bar floor, expect a citation.
  • Glass Washing: Each bar must have approved glass washing facilities. That may entail (a) a back-of-the-house dishroom (b) behind the bar mechanical dishwasher or, most commonly (c) a three-section bar sink. Sink A should contain a stationary or motorized glassware series of brushes and must employ approved soap. Sink B should contain rinse water supplemented by approved SaniTabs. Sink C should be a clean water rinse. All three sinks should have their contents refreshed several times throughout a shift.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Health Department bar violations. However, this list is a compilation of the most common ones I’ve seen.  A lot of what the Health Department dreams up, while supposedly looking out for the guest experience, is admittedly highly impractical. I’ll go further and state that many of the rules are flat-out impossible to follow during peak periods while attempting to maintain an efficient and profitable business. As a result, you’ll often see a mad dash to compliance at the mere threat of a Health Inspector walk-through.

In short, treat your guests as you would like to be treated. Don’t be a dirt-ass and you will likely not have much of a concern in terms of getting cited and losing your precious “A” Letter Grade.


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