Angry at Health Dept. Grade, Tribeca Restaurateur Displays Her Violations

On the window of her shop, Cafe Clementine, Barbara Stratton invites customers to visit her kitchen and shows her inspection report. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 20, 2014

A list of Health Department violations has been posted prominently on the window of Cafe Clementine, the tiny soup and sandwich shop on West Broadway in Tribeca.

Owner Barbara Stratton put the inspection report there herself.

The list of violations, from her most recent inspection, is displayed alongside an angry note (Heading: “HOW DO YOU SPELL EXTORTION?”) that offers customers a “guided tour” of her kitchen and takes exception to her “B” rating, which is announced on the window as “Grade Pending.”

Stratton said she has nothing to hide.

“I think the ‘Grade Pending’ can make people wonder what’s going on,” Stratton said, standing in the small basement prep kitchen as workers nearby busily sliced ham and cut up broccoli. “I just want to be able to show them that we have a clean kitchen and they don’t have to worry. We respect the food, we respect each other and we respect our customers.”

A cafe manager appeared out of the closet-sized basement office to offer his own views on the inspections.

“They come in here with the attitude of, ‘we’re trying to hide something,’ and it’s their job to try to catch us,” said the manager, who only wanted to give his first name, Nadeem. 

“They will get on their hands and knees,” Nadeem added. “They will take out a flashlight, they will go behind walls, they will do whatever it takes to find something.”

“They treat you like you’re trying to get away with something, and they don’t work with you,” Stratton said emphatically. She is concerned, she said, that the inspectors go out of their way to meet a quota of violations and the fines that go with them. 

Not so, said Levi Fishman, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

“The department’s goal in restaurant inspections is protecting public health,” Fishman said in an email. “Inspectors are salaried employees and are not compensated or evaluated based on the number of violations they issue or grades they give out.”

When a health inspector visited Cafe Clementine on Jan. 13, the restaurant received 20 violation points. During a re-inspection on Jan. 30, it fared worse, receiving 26 violation points. On Friday, Feb. 21, the cafe appealed its violations before the Health Department’s Administrative Tribunal. Most were upheld while two were dismissed, reducing her fines to $800.

Stratton and her staff insisted that the violations cited in the department’s reports are minor and nit picky.

One violation—dripping water from a pipe connected to the glass water heater in the basement—is a problem, she said, that is tough to prevent.

“The copper pipe leading into the water heater has to have a wall around it, according to the Health Department,” Stratton said. “When it has a wall around it, it gets really hot, so condensation happens. It’s just what happens.”

Another violation was issued because the waste line from the hand-wash sink in the food prep area was leaking onto the floor.

“They complained about one of the drains that wasn’t draining, because if workers used too much suds, then the bowl that the drainage [moves through] fills up with suds and then the water overflows. It’s a problem,” Stratton said,  “but that’s the biggest drain that we can buy.”

Agnes Copeland, a consultant for Cafe Clementine and former health inspector who is hired to conduct monthly surprise inspections of the eatery, said the Health Department focuses too much on problems that are unrelated to food preparation, issues that are “not going to cause bodily harm for people.”

“[Cafe Clementine] is in impeccable shape, and there is no reason why they should have failed the inspection,” Copeland said. “There are no mice and no vermin.”

But a few of the violations cited in the Health Department’s reports were related to food preparation. In one, the inspector said he found raw chicken stored on the dirty surface of a food storage rack inside the walk-in refrigerator.

“[The workers] prepare the chicken and the put it on the rack before they go into the refrigerator, and [the chicken] was touching the side of the rack,” Stratton said, acknowledging that this is often how chicken is handled when the cafe receives a shipment.

In another, the inspector found a milk wand encrusted with residue on the espresso machine. Stratton said that her employee had made espresso five minutes before the inspector noticed the wand. Because of the high temperatures, residue on the wand crusts up immediately, she explained.

Stratton said she believes the Health Department may be keeping a close eye on her cafe because its office is nearby, at 125 Worth Street. She noted that the cafe is often used as a training ground for beginner inspectors.

“When the new inspectors come in, they want to prove themselves,” Copeland said. “They become very zealous and they go over the top.” But she added that she doesn’t think the department is “gunning for” Cafe Clementine.

As Copeland sees it, Stratton was right to invite customers to tour her kitchen.

“I think it was a great decision,” she said. “If you think you have nothing to hide, then you could put [the sign] out.”

So far, Stratton says, no one has taken up her offer for a kitchen tour and, it seems, the attention she is drawing to her violations has not hurt business. Customers continue to crowd the tiny place, waiting to place orders for soup, salads and sandwiches.

Stratton said she is not sure why other restaurant owners with “Grade Pending” signs have not also welcomed customers to tour their kitchens.

“I don’t think people take it personally,” she said. “I take it personally.”