A sure-fire way to see your restaurant business take a nose-dive is to be featured or even mentioned on TV.
That’s what local restaurant owners, many of them immigrant entrepreneurs, are facing in the wake of last month’s series of reports on KCBS-TV Channel 2.
The series, which has attracted national attention, listed L.A. restaurants receiving low grades from the county Health Services Department, along with hidden-camera shots of kitchen workers deboning chickens with their teeth or smoking while preparing food.
All of this has had a chilling effect on business for many of these immigrant entrepreneurs, for whom the restaurant business is often one of the only options for a career in the U.S.
It also has raised questions about how serious a health threat the restaurant kitchens actually represent.
“The bottom line issue is, how many people get sick eating in L.A. restaurants, and there is no evidence that it is a significant figure,” said Dr. Robert Tranquada, an emeritus professor of medicine and public policy at the University of Southern California.
“According to the recent quarterly reports on infectious diseases that the Health Department publishes, there have been no startling or disturbing numbers,” Tranquada said.
John Schunhoff, acting director of public health for the Department of Health Services, said there are 1,800 to 2,000 cases of food-borne illnesses reported each year in the county, which includes illnesses contracted at home as well as at restaurants.
And Schunhoff said that number is deceptively low. He noted that it’s easier to trace an illness at home or at a banquet than at a restaurant, because patrons may not visit doctors.
In any event, the county Board of Supervisors is coming down hard on health officials as a result of the embarassing series, ordering reforms and studying an increase in inspections.
Health Services Department spokesman Frederick MacFarlane said adding to the number of inspections might require more staff. The department is currently looking at staffing requirements.
“Will (inspections) be tougher? no doubt about it,” MacFarlane said. “Will they be fair? Yes.”
Much of the attention is sure to focus on L.A.’s many ethnic restaurants hundreds of which received the lowest grades.
Cultural differences are cited as the primary reason for the health-code violations at ethnic eateries, in addition to the fact that immigrants are often unaware of American laws.
“They come from a place in which standards for food preparation are not as stringent as ours,” said Gerald Breitbart, a consultant with the California Restaurant Association.
Sammy Cheung, manager of Ocean Star Seafood Restaurant in Monterey Park who came to the United States from Hong Kong 25 years ago, said food sanitation standards here are far tougher than those in his native country.
“In Hong Kong, the restaurants were much dirtier,” said Cheung. “Health inspectors would accept bribes. Everything is a lot cleaner here.”
The owner of a Mexican restaurant in Maywood who asked to remain anonymous because of the bad publicity agreed that cultural differences are the cause of most of his problems with health inspectors.
“In Mexico, you could keep carnitas (deep-fried pork) out at 140 degrees. Here, they condemn it,” he said. “I know for a fact carnitas could be out for a long time. We didn’t have refrigeration when I was growing up in Mexico. If it’s well cooked, you could eat it.”
Eventually, after continual run-ins with the health department, the immigrant entrepreneurs become acquainted with U.S. standards. But many either go bankrupt or achieve success and move on.
“The next wave of immigrants replaces them, so you’ll always have a problem with restaurants operated by newly arrived immigrants,” said Breitbart.
Thomas Houndalas, owner of Le Petit Greek in Los Angeles closed by the Health Department because of a faulty dishwasher complains that county officials seldom try to educate restaurant owners about state and federal law.
“We have never, ever had anybody come to us and tell us how to correctly do things,” said Houndalas, a native of Greece who opened his restaurant 10 years ago. “When (inspectors) come in they say, ‘This looks very bad,’ and then you fix it … (but) they never give you any feedback.”
The California Restaurant Association, a trade group with about 13,000 members, currently runs a training program for members, and Breitbart and others with the association have been meeting with county officials to discuss ways to make the program more accessible.
“We’re putting a lot more information out to our members,” said Breitbart. “We will try to assist everyone who is part of this industry.”
Joel Bellman, an aide to Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, said the argument that foreigners are unfamiliar with American laws and ignorant of proper sanitation procedures is “patronizing and condescending.”
“They’re doing business here and they’re serving a clientele that expects the sanitation,” said Bellman.
Following a directive from supervisors, Health Services Director Mark Finucane returned to the board Nov. 25 with a list of three proposed ordinances and a series of steps that have already been implemented. The proposed ordinances will be reviewed Dec. 9.
One proposal would require restaurants that have been shut down for code violations to post a sign stating the reasons for the closure. Currently, restaurants are allowed to post their own reasons for closure.
Another proposed ordinance would mandate food certification and training programs for managers and workers.
Tranquada said such a recommendation “can be very effective in overcoming the different cultural standards and backgrounds that have caused some of the difficulties in the immigrant-run restaurants.”
One of Finucane’s more controversial proposals would require L.A. restaurants to publicly post a report card showing the results of their latest health inspections.
Breitbart concedes that health officials need to be more stringent, but he said a report card is not the answer.
“This will give the consumer a false sense of security,” said Breitbart. “An inspection is a snapshot in time. A restuarant that may be an ‘A’ in the morning might be a ‘C’ by 1 o’clock.”
Indeed, when the health department does suspect a restaurant of spreading a food-borne illness, the offending food is inevitably gone by the time inspectors visit the restaurant, Schunhoff said.
Several weeks ago, the department received reports of illness from clusters of people who had fallen ill after eating at a particular restaurant. Inspectors didn’t find any infected food in the kitchen, but they did discover such unsanitary practices as raw meat being stored near open vats of salad dressing.
“We were able to ascertain that practices at the restaurant could have contributed to the spread of a food-borne illness,” Schunhoff said. Preventing such illnesses before they start is the intent of the proposed health department regulations, he said.
Staff reporters Sara Fisher and Joyzelle Davis contributed to this report.