2011-12-23 / Front Page

Slipping Through The Cracks

By Nicholas Briano

Plum Tomatoes, located at 420 Beach 129 Street, has no letter grade in the window. Plum Tomatoes, located at 420 Beach 129 Street, has no letter grade in the window. The New York City Department of Health restaurant letter grade system has been implemented in a seemingly smooth transition from the once confusing points system, perhaps with the exception of one popular Belle Harbor eatery, which appears to have been operating under the radar until The Wave questioned its status earlier this month.

Plum Tomatoes, located along the commercial strip of Beach 129 Street, has no letter grade in the window and in fact, it wasn’t even included on the DOH’s comprehensive database of restaurant inspections. Why Plum Tomatoes has no record of inspection remains somewhat of a mystery. On December 8, The Wave wrote to DOH asking them why the popular restaurant has not only no letter grade but no record of previous inspections. The following week, The Wave received a response from DOH which simply stated that Plum Tomatoes was inspected on December 13 and is now included on the database of restaurant inspections.

Several follow-up e-mails and calls asking how a restaurant such as Plum Tomatoes can have no record of inspection initially went unanswered. The fact that the DOH called the December 13 inspection a “pre-permit inspection,” however, suggests that either Plum Tomatoes never had a permit in the first place or they are operating under an expired permit. The pre-permit inspection had startling results.

Under the new system, most restaurants along the peninsula have received an A, but a score of 28 or more points results in a C. The initial inspection score for Plum Tomatoes was 73.

Inspections that result in more than 13 points, according to DOH, are scored, but not yet graded. The Department will go back to the restaurant in a month to inspect it again and that inspection will be graded. This allows businesses to correct and make good on any initial violations they may have incurred. Inspections that are scored but not graded can include inspections at new, not-yet-opened restaurants or at restaurants the Department closed and is considering reopening.

The absence of Plum Tomatoes from the restaurant inspection process seemingly dates back to at least April 2010 when The Wave published a list of every establishment on the peninsula and their respective inspection scores. The list, which was generated from the online database, did not include Plum Tomatoes.

Plum Tomatoes operator, Sal Giannone admitted that it’s been “a few years” since they have been inspected, but couldn’t remember exactly when they last saw the health department walk through their doors prior to last week. When asked if he had a valid permit on file, he answered yes.

“We have nothing to hide here,” he said. “We keep a very clean place and have always had a permit. We have never operated without a permit.”

Throughout the hustle and bustle of everyday business, Giannone continued to explain, he never noticed that inspectors didn’t come around and furthermore, didn’t recognize Plum Tomatoes as the only Beach 129 Street restaurant without the new letter grade in their window.

“There has been some sort of confusion on the part of the health department.” He said. “We are in the process of straightening everything out with them. There’s been some sort of mix up here.”

That mix-up appears to a blunder on behalf of the health department. That agency responded on Thursday to The Wave’s follow-up request for clarification on the situation.

According to a spokesperson for the health department, Plum Tomatoes was operating with an “inactive permit” and had its regular permit renewed on Wednesday.

In most instances, the health department shuts down a restaurant once they are caught operating without a permit at least until the permit is renewed, which apparently wasn’t the case with Plum Tomatoes. The Health department spokesperson also declined to say how long the permit has been inactive.

“Plum Tomatoes had not renewed their permit so they were listed as inactive in our database. As of yesterday they renewed their permit and began their inspection cycle,” a health department spokesperson said on Thursday. “We encourage consumers to call 311 if they do not see a grade in a restaurant’s window or front door.”

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