New York City is renowned for its diverse and vibrant restaurant scene but ensuring that the food served is safe for consumption is crucial. As an investigative journalist, I visited all five boroughs of the city to gain insight into the challenges faced by restaurant owners and their efforts to maintain proper food safety standards.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every aspect of life, including the food industry. Restaurant owners have been facing numerous challenges in maintaining proper food safety standards, particularly due to the loss of revenue that has forced them to operate with limited resources and staff. The consequences have led to a lack of employee applicants, forcing restaurant owners to settle for workers who may not be the best fit for the job, or enough personnel to help meet the New York State Sanitary Code, which lists several violations that could lead to an imminent health hazard, including the use of food from an unapproved or unknown source, serving potentially hazardous food that is not stored at the correct temperature, and allowing persons with diseases or infections that can be transmitted by food or drink to handle food.
Most of the restaurants visited for this report also face the challenge of maintaining and retaining staff. To attract and retain qualified staff, restaurant owners may need to increase wages, offer benefits, and provide a positive work environment, a challenge with reduced revenues due to the Covid impact on the economy. Being able to hold on to staff also allows is critical for restaurant owners to provide training and education to staff to maintain proper food safety standards.
In my conversations with restaurant owners across the city, all underscored the importance of implementing learning protocols to maintain proper food safety standards. At Amy Ruth’s Restaurant in Harlem, owner and general manager David Mekies emphasized the significance of proper training and education for staff. “We take food safety seriously and ensure that our staff are well-trained on proper food handling and preparation. This includes regular training on the latest guidelines and regulations from local health authorities,” he said.
Abey African Food, located on Richmond Terrace in Staten Island, has been facing significant challenges with rodent infestation, another result of Covid enforced shutdown of restaurant functions, which diminished the amounts of discarded foods thrown into dumpsters, a source of nourishment for rats, sending the rodents indoors to look for food, thus posing a risk to food safety. Owner Fatimo Abiodun Balogun, who shared that she also has been struggling to keep up with rent and renovation costs in order to maintain a clean environment, the rodent issue from her neighbors continues to be a major concern. To address this issue, Balogun expressed hope that the government can provide resources to help tackle the problem. “We are doing our best to maintain a clean environment but the rodent issue from our neighbors makes it difficult. We hope that the city can provide support to address this problem, whether it’s through increased pest control measures or resources to help us deal with the issue more effectively,” she said. Meanwhile, to address the rodent infestation, the restaurant owner has taken preventive measures such as regular cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and food storage areas and is looking into sealing any cracks or holes in the building to prevent rodents from entering. Currently, the city provides some resources to help tackle the issue, including pest control services and education and training on proper rodent control practices. There is a need for restaurant owners and government to work together and take proactive steps to address the rodent issue, to help ensure the safety and well-being of their customers and staff.
The National Diner at Westchester Square in The Bronx has faced several challenges, including the ongoing road construction that besides making it difficult for customers to physically access the restaurant the owner fears the construction work may pose a risk to food safety by polluting the air and environment around the restaurant. “We understand the concerns of our customers regarding the ongoing road construction near our restaurant, especially when it comes to food safety,” said the owner. “To address this, we have taken several measures, such as increasing the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, utensils, and equipment to ensure that our food is safe for consumption. Our customers’ health and safety are our top priority, and we will continue to do everything we can to maintain the highest standards of hygiene and cleanliness at our establishment.”
At Q44 Bar and Grill in The Bronx, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the business, with a decline in revenue and challenges with their lease and alcohol license. Despite these difficulties, owner Anna Medrano has stayed to course and continues to maintain the commitment to food safety and a clean environment for their customers. “We have implemented strict protocols for the handling and storage of food, to ensure that it is safe for consumption,” Medrano said. “Specifically, we have continued to maintain frequent sanitization of high-touch surfaces and the use of personal protective equipment by our staff to prevent the spread of any potential viruses or illnesses. Our customers can dine with confidence, knowing that we take their health and safety seriously, as we continue to uphold these protocols in a post-COVID-19 world.”
At Nneji African Food in Queens, owner Beatrice Ajaero has taken proactive steps to ensure that the restaurant is up to code and safe for customers, despite the challenge of limited space. According to Ajaero, “Due to our limited space, it can be challenging to maintain a clean and organized environment, which is critical for food safety.” To overcome this challenge, the restaurant has implemented several measures to ensure cleanliness and safety. As Ajaero explains, “We regularly deep clean and sanitize all surfaces, utensils, and equipment to prevent any potential contamination.” Additionally, all employees undergo thorough training on food handling and safety practices, as Ajaero emphasizes, “We take food safety seriously and ensure that all employees are trained in proper hygiene and handling practices.” The restaurant also uses a system to monitor and document temperature controls for all food items, as Ajaero states, “We regularly monitor the temperatures of our food items to ensure that they are stored and prepared at the appropriate temperatures to prevent any potential foodborne illnesses.”
Despite the challenges, the restaurant industry in New York City faces, all restaurant owners interviewed stressed the importance of staying informed about food safety regulations and the need to be proactive to address food safety issues. By prioritizing food safety and working together with the government and the public, the restaurant industry can continue to thrive and provide delicious and safe meals for its customers.
This story was produced as part of the Small Business Reporting Fellowship, organized by the Center for Community Media and funded by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment.