It’s easy to understand why the owner of Chinatown Inn might be embarrassed by the yellow Consumer Alert decal that was prominently posted on the front window of his Downtown restaurant in late July for a string of serious food safety violations.
But an effort to hide the warning from customers behind two strategically placed potted plants backfired when the Allegheny County Health Department discovered the cover-up and slapped him with an $800 fine.
“That’s a very egregious violation” to conceal an alert from the public, Jim Thompson, deputy director of environmental health for the department, said last week.
Fines can range from $500 to $1,000, depending on the willfulness and duration of the infraction, Mr. Thompson said. “In this case, it was fairly willful, so the fine was in the higher end of the range,” he said.
Chinatown Inn, a fixture on Third Avenue and popular with the lunchtime crowd, was hit with the consumer alert July 24 after an inspection (see below) turned up 13 critical health code violations, such as holding food at unsafe temperatures, cross contamination problems and a fruit fly infestation.
The next day, a Friday, an off-duty health department inspector who had issued the alert was passing through the area around 9:30 p.m. and noticed the warning was being blocked by a large potted palm plant positioned outside on the sidewalk. Another potted palm in the vestibule was pushed against the window, obscuring the alert from the inside.
The inspector snapped a photo to document the scene.
During a follow-up visit on Monday, the inspector replaced the yellow alert sticker with a green “inspected and permitted” placard after finding that most of the serious violations had been fixed. In his report, he noted that the alert had been concealed. A few days later, a fine was issued.
Owner Jonathan Yee did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Mr. Thompson said the health department is rarely forced to bust a restaurant for tampering with a consumer alert. “Most people comply and understand this is a very serious violation,” he said.
But that sort of behavior could soon become a bigger problem.
The health department is planning to implement an A-B-C grading system, possibly this fall, that would require restaurants and other food facilities in the county to hang grade cards on their doors.
In New York City, which launched a restaurant grading program in 2010, some 1,300 businesses were fined up to $1,000 each during the 12 months ended June 2013 after they were caught trying to hide their grades, according to the N.Y. Daily News. The health department there is responsible for inspecting roughly 24,000 restaurants.
One restaurant manager told the paper he made a calculated business decision to pay a fine rather than put a “C” rating on his door that he said would have ruined his business.
Another place claimed the grade cards were being stolen by customers. “We didn’t know that we were supposed to file a police report,” an unnamed manager said.
Still another said that her restaurant’s letter grades kept getting lost in the mail. “We had a problem with the mail ... so we had to go downtown ourselves,” she told the paper.
In Allegheny County, fines and penalties for concealing or refusing to post a grade would be the same as those for interfering with consumer alerts, Mr. Thompson said.
“We understand this could possibly be an issue,” he said. “It would be considered a major violation.” Repeat offenders could have their operating permits revoked, he added.
“We also will be making sure there are no counterfeit grades out there,” he said.
The inspection grades could start going up as soon as September or October if the proposal gets the final nod from the county Board of Health and county council. Grades also would be available online to the public.
For any restaurant owners in the county who might consider hiding or tampering with their grade cards, Mr. Thompson had this to say: “We will be watching you.”
Inspection reports for county restaurants are available online at webapps.achd.net/Restaurant/.
Patricia Sabatini: email@example.com or 412-263-3066.