Categorized | Health & Food

A Food Safety Warrior Flourishes Amidst Health Department Profiteering

Posted on 07 December 2009 by Melissa Muller

Over the past eighteen years, Michael Kelly has accumulated a laundry list of the unappetizing practices he has witnessed in restaurants. He has seen cooks, even in upscale restaurants, serve food picked up from the floor, mix tuna fish salads with their bare hands, and store knives that were used to cut chicken in between pieces of equipment, only to use the same cutlery shortly after to chop lettuce. “God only knows what grows on those knives,” says Kelly.

Very few people in this city can look at a spotlessly clean restaurant and in a matter of minutes tell you why it might fail a health inspection. Kelly, with unpretentious confidence, is one of the few. His official title?  It is too simplistic to call him a License Expediter or Health Inspection Consultant. He provides a range of services for food establishments by obtaining sidewalk café licenses, building department permits, liquor licenses and health permits. Due to a wealth of knowledge of the dos and don’ts of food safety, Kelly is called upon to not only help prevent health violations, but also to defend business owners who have already received them. He is most popular for his thorough “walk-throughs,” mock health inspections where he studies a given restaurant and lists all possible code violations.

Kelly knows his stuff when it comes to food safety, but moreover is an expert on interpreting the Department of Health’s code. Ambiguous and convoluted, the code can be confusing and open to multiple interpretations. Restaurant operators and chefs are required to take a weeklong certification class on food safety and avoiding violations, but they commonly feel in the dark when it comes to understanding the nature of the violations they receive. Kelly’s knowledge is often a lifesaver for his clients.

Eleven non-compensated physicians and health experts make up the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.  Appointed to six-year terms by the mayor, these board members run the show.  While its mission is to safeguard public health, it is no secret that the department has a history of corruption, its inspectors known for accepting restaurant owners’ bribes.

According to Kelly, bribery is no longer plaguing the system. Nowadays, it is restaurant owners who are suffering from the department’s unfair tactics. He notes that “Nine out of ten restaurants now get cited for the presence of vermin, but some of those restaurants don’t have rodent infestation.” Inspectors are known to move old refrigerators and stoves aside “to search for age-old mouse droppings.” These violations not only exact a financial toll on the restaurants, but, since violations are easily searchable online and discussed on popular food blogs, the bad publicity can severely affect restaurants’ flow of customers.

Kelly, not shy to voice his opinion on the department’s skewed politics, is adamant that “health inspections are not only protecting public health.” He says the department’s fines are “unfortunately just revenue-raisers” for the City, adding that inspectors are “equal to traffic cops.” The vagueness of the code allows inspectors and judges to interpret the law individually. Some judges consider while others are “under pressure from higher up to generate large fines,” says Kelly.

In a phone conversation with one of Kelly’s longest-running clients, Anne Kakoun, business manager of Le Bilbouquet said, “When I get frantic” after an inspection, “Mike calms me down and takes my worries away.” There is “no way,” she says, she would represent herself at a hearing without Kelly.

Set on the top floor of his Scarsdale, N.Y. ranch, Kelly’s no-frills office is far removed from the hustle and bustle of the Department of Health. Crowded with stacks of paperwork, cozy with its wood-paneled walls and vaulted ceiling, there’s just enough room to fit some desks and office chairs, enough space for Kelly, his assistant, Caren Benveniste, and the family dog, Charlotte.

Michael Kelly for website

Kelly’s amiable demeanor darkens only when discussing the questionable politics of the Department of Health, his otherwise distinctively pale face turning beet red. The politics frustrate him, especially when he sees his client’s restaurants get closed for “unfair reasons” such as for “failing to have a spring on the bathroom door or for cracks in their tiles,” while “restaurants full of really hazardous violations remain open.”

Kelly’s firm, which employs two full-time employees and four part-timers, represents close to 1,000 food establishments in the city, from university cafeterias to five-star restaurants, all of which find him strictly via word of mouth. Before starting his business, Kelly was a police officer, experience that provided him with the know-how for dealing with the City’s bureaucracy.

After a serious car accident forced his early retirement, Kelly dabbled in myriad business start-ups and studied accounting. It wasn’t until 1991, when a friend was opening Ferrara’s, a since-closed Upper East Side restaurant, and needed administrative help, that Kelly got involved with the Department of Health. After securing a health permit for Ferarra’s, he realized “Wow, this [process] is really easy!” He started obtaining licenses for other restaurants and, after intensive study of the intricate health code, began to represent businesses at health violation hearings and to consult business owners on how to implement food safety rules.

After building his business from scratch, one customer at a time, Kelly’s reputation is of utmost importance to him. He refuses to represent restaurateurs who neglect to clean up their kitchens. “I don’t waste time with restaurants not changing their style. In the end, it makes me look bad.”

Cenk Fikri, a restaurant consultant at such high-end venues as Gold Bar and Fresh, calls on Kelly’s services for nearly every restaurant he builds. Cenk prefers Kelly over others who do similar work because he knows “that the job will be done thoroughly.”

Kelly insists on training his staff to see things through his eyes. “Everyone is a reflection of me,” he says. Unable to service his client’s health department needs alone, Kelly hired Robert “Bobby” Callahan, a friend and former fellow police officer. Bobby now represents restaurants at hearings and obtains licenses, but it wasn’t until he sat in on over 300 hearings with Kelly that he was given this responsibility. Kelly taught Bobby that, when appearing before the judge, though there is “no set way” to argue the violations, “It’s better to say less than more.”

On a visit to the Department of Health tribunal on John Street with Bobby, a clerk flagged Bobby down among crowds of business owners to personally hand him a judgment for one of the day’s cases. A series of violations against a Manhattan taco restaurant were consolidated into a single violation, lowering the total amount of the fine, because Bobby argued that certain violations overlapped.  Kelly charges an average of $150 to represent a business; the fee is often absorbed by a significant reduction in fines that the restaurant would probably not receive without Kelly’s experience.

Despite Kelly’s exposure to countless stomach-churning kitchen conditions, he continues to frequent restaurants with his wife and teenage daughter. He is surprisingly not turned off by mice or roach infestation, but refuses to enter an establishment that has houseflies. (Not only do “the flies congregate to garbage and feces” and then land on our plates, he explains, but “they regurgitate on the food they eat,” contaminating much more than roaches, which are comparatively sanitary since they “lick themselves clean, just like cats.”)

Back in the office, Kelly’s phone rings incessantly with calls from frenzied restaurant owners. He pauses amid the noise to speculate a bit. Recently, Kelly has noticed that fewer and fewer of his clients are receiving violations from inspectors for sticking knives between equipment, a common violation. His eyes glow as he realizes that his influence might just be making New York’s food – and the people who eat it – safer, throughout the Big Apple.

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