My heart sank as I reached the front door, only to realize that the worst was true. The usual line was nonexistent; the lights inside were dim and the front gates were down. My only clue was a small yellow notice on the front door. Apparently the New York City Department of Health and Human Hygiene had deemed this beloved pizzeria unfit to open. The reputation of an over 80-year-old pizzeria was on the line, and I was forced into the delicate position of defending its honor.
I could feel the text messages, voice mails and tweets piling up as friends and colleagues looked for answers upon hearing the news, but the challenge at hand was to explain to my pizza tour group why I was planning to feed them slices from an “unsanitary” restaurant. My tour wasn’t forming a great first impression of this landmark pizzeria, so it instantly became my job to play publicist and clean up the messy situation as we walked across the street to a pizzeria that had been spared by the DOH.
The first thing I had to do was explain the DOH grading system and how its standards impact the city’s fabled pizza culture. As in many other cities, letter grades reflect a certain number of points that are deducted for violations. Pizzerias fight an uphill battle because product is often staged in display cases, prompting instant deductions. I’ve seen pizzerias go so far as to tag the exact time and temperature of each pizza as it hits the counter yet still shiver in fear at the thought of a health inspector. Every pound of “contaminated” food earns even more deductions. So one hole in a 50-pound bag of flour can be lethal for a restaurant’s score.
Education is the best way out of a sticky situation, but be careful how you present information to your customers. I’ve heard lots of pizzeria managers say it’s impossible for bacteria to survive the high temperatures of a pizza oven — but that can sound like an excuse to let hygiene slide. I’ve also heard the charges that health inspectors are just looking for reasons to pull your score down because they want to make a name for themselves. Hear this through a customer’s ears and it sounds like a pile of unfounded excuses. Try instead to explain clearly what went wrong and how you intend to fix it. People love hearing about all the ways you’re going to improve their dining experience, so make this an opportunity to highlight the future rather than attempting to cover up the past.
A health department closing leaves a bitter taste in your customers’ mouths before they even have a chance to sample your food. Its punch is far more powerful than a few days of lost business; it’s a scarlet letter in the eyes of your customers. Do everything you can to educate your customers and it will soften the blow delivered by an unplanned closing.
Scott Wiener owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City.