Restaurants Fines Leave Bad Taste

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[Photo: MLamp/CPR]

Some of Denver’s top chefs are boiling mad. They say they’re paying through the nose because of changes to how the city’s health department inspects, and cites, restaurants. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports.

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[The following is a transcript of Megan Verlee's report:]

Reporter Megan Verlee: On a weekday afternoon, the small kitchen at Mizuna on Denver’s 7th Street is bustling as chefs get ready for the evening’s service. Owner and chef Frank Bonanno stalks between them, playing the role of imaginary health inspector.

Frank Bonanno (restauarant owner): "Oh my god, there’s a strainer in our handsink. We’re going to kill somebody with that."

Reporter: That’s a violation because the sink is supposed to be used for nothing but handwashing. A few steps further on and Bonanno finds another no-no.

Bonanno: "He’s got a bottle of bleach over here that’s got its lid on and is closed. I would bet they would say that’s a critical violation because he’s cutting mushrooms four feet away from it."

Reporter: And a critical violation can mean a fine of up to a thousand dollars. Bonanno says in the past inspectors would likely have let things like this slide, as long as he fixed them immediately.

Bonanno: "Three years ago they would have been like, c’mon, you know you’re not supposed to do that."

Reporter: But now, Bonanno says, he can’t get through an inspection without being written up for something and getting a bill in the mail. Restaurants and health inspectors are sort of like cats and dogs: natural adversaries. But Bonanno says this is different.

Bonanno: "We haven’t changed what we’re doing, but now all of a sudden it’s a big problem."

Reporter: Bonanno isn’t alone in his complaint. A number of other Denver chefs, many of whom said they’re afraid to go on record, tell the same story. They say inspectors have become much more strict in the past year and a half, quicker to write up citations and assess fines. Larry Herz owns the restaurant Seven 30 South in the Washington Park area.

Larry Herz (restaurant owner): "You know, my first fine was $500 dollars, I was like, okay, I’ll pay it. Then all of a sudden this one’s $1000. Now I’m concerned. Small business in this economy? I can’t afford $1000 fine."

Reporter: Herz and other restaurant owners say the shift in inspector attitude started eighteen months ago, when the city changed how it handles health code violations. In the old days, a restaurant that racked up a couple of citations had to post a notice in the window: “Violation - evidence of rodents," something like that. Restaurant owners hated it; they complained the warnings were too broad and scared off patrons unnecessarily. They asked the city to get rid of them.

Bob McDonald (Director, Denver Public Health Inspection Division): "It’s something our office agreed to because it didn’t compromise public health."

Reporter: Bob McDonald is the head of Denver’s environmental health division. He says that without the threat of a notice in the window, something else had to change, too.

McDonald: "And that we were going to increase fines to make sure there was enough incentive there for restaurateurs to be proactive."

Reporter: The new fines are larger, and they build up faster. But McDonald says Denver’s restaurants knew what they were getting into.

McDonald: "The policy that we have in place right now was overwhelmingly supported when it was presented to a large group of members at the Colorado Restaurant Association. They overwhelmingly supported it, they were a big part of it."

Reporter: No one from the Restaurant Association would comment for this story but they say they are working with the city to modify the policy. The larger fines have definitely had an impact. In the first year of the new system restaurants paid five times more in fines than under the old arrangement, almost a quarter-million dollars total. Daniel Asher is Operations Chef at the restaurants Linger and Root Down in the Lower Highlands neighborhood. He supported the new system at first.

Daniel Asher (chef): "Initially on paper it sounded great, it sounded like it made a lot of sense. But something got lost in translation from what was explained to be the nature of the changes and then what actually ended up unfolding and I think that’s where a lot of the pushback is coming from."

Reporter: Chefs are glad not to have the posted notices but they think the change also freed up inspectors to levy more fines, without running the risk of the public thinking that every restaurant is dangerous. And they accuse the city of quietly padding its budget at their expense. Denver City Council president Chris Nevitt’s been involved with the whole process and rejects that idea.

Chris Nevitt (City Councilman): "Our inspectors aren’t interested in generating revenue. They’re interested in generating compliance."

Reporter: The Health Department says its numbers show inspectors aren’t writing any more citations now than they did under the old system. Still, chef Daniel Asher says the situation is raising people’s blood pressure.

Asher: "It’s just frustrating when you go from such an amicable relationship with minimal financial penalties to something that’s a little bit more tenuous."

Reporter: Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration is working to help broker some peace between Denver’s restaurants and its restaurant inspectors. But for right now, many Denver chefs say the current citation system leaves them with a bad taste in their mouths.