Underground Food

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Interesting NY Times piece on underground restaurants:

Restaurants of dubious legality, where food is cooked in apartments and backyards, abound across the United States. These underground restaurants range from upscale to gritty, and are born from youthful idealism, ethnic tradition or economic necessity. They lack certification from any government agency and are, strictly speaking, against the law. You dine in them at your own risk. If you can find them.

Read the whole thing here.

[Link via Boing-Boing via Hijinx Comics]

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  1. My kitchen has not been inspected by the health department yet. Shouldn’t the government pay me a visit to protect my friends from potential food poisoning? If not, why not?

  2. Because that’s not a business transaction, Mark, unless you’re a really lousy friend.

  3. I’ve worked in your kitchen and watched you poison your friends, and dammit the government should do something about it!

  4. joe,

    Absent the government agency, the market would provide services for rating a restaurant’s cleanliness, etc. Then people could better judge for themselves how valuable the rating was. That’s the argument anyway. You can’t say that the government has a perfect record at maintaining health codes. How long did it take them to find out the restaurant in your example?

    Have you ever noticed the “UL” on most electrical appliances? It has nothing to do with the government. Underwriter’s Laboratories sprang up unbidden by the state.

  5. The next time I go home and my lawless (immigrant!) mother tries to cook a meal for me, I’m going to demand to see her license. We can’t have people like her operating under the radar.

  6. JDM,

    Sorry, but the former foodservice workers seem to agree that there are a lot of shady operations.

    UL certification: Manufacturers have huge capital investments in plants and what-all that are on the line in the event of product liability lawsuits (just to keep enforcement in the hands of private actors). If they can get their risk underwritten by an insurance company, their capital is protected. If the insurance company can minimize their risk, through professional engineering review, such as provided by UL, good for them.

    Fly-by-night underground chefs don’t have that skin in the game. Would you push the capital risk onto landlords who might have their property seized in the event that a tenant of theirs commits food poisoning on a customer? (see if you feel similarly about drug war property seizures). If the chef (who may, as in one of the examples in the article, be simply testing the waters of professional restauranting or otherwise not very committed) has a reasonable expectation of disappearing and/or relocating to new ground in the event of a calamity, how exactly are they disciplined by the market? Keep in mind, selling a plate of spoilt food for $20 is $20 more profitable than throwing it out.

  7. “Sorry, but the former foodservice workers seem to agree that there are a lot of shady operations.”

    What? With the government protecting us? how can that be?

    “How exactly are [the chefs] disciplined by the market?”

    They aren’t, the restaurant goers are. I’m willing to bet that at least some of these people know that the health department is not inspecting their dinner clubs. People seem to want to take the risk. Why not let them? Most won’t die.

    My point was more to joe’s general bafflement at what people would do in the abscence of incompetent beaurucrats ensuring that none of my General Tso’s chicken fell on the floor. I’m not suggesting that private oversight would better ensure a diner’s health in the “fly-by-night” cases, except that if there were no UL equivalent sticker next to the Zagat’s sticker on the restaurant’s window, they could better judge the “fly-by-nightness” of what they were eating.

  8. That’s the way it used to work, JDM. A restaurant opens up, people take their chances. After a couple of folks keel over, everyone else stops going.

    Then they implemented health inspections. And instances of food-borne illness plummetted. If your philosophy doesn’t allow you to get your head around these FACTS, then maybe you need another philosophy. I’ll stick with what works.

  9. So only the government’s knowledge of public health has increased? It seems like there is a considerable trend toward germ phobia which would more likely support private organizations capable of policing restaurants for rats than in the past. Possibly not, but your “only government can do this” non-reasoning is what is suspect here.

  10. that’s right, Kieth. The “profit motive” is evil.

  11. ^that’s a pretty dumb statement, when Keith sympathetically described the profit-seeking of landlords and appliance manufacturers. I think your problem is that he didn’t give his blessing to every profit-seeking activity, including selling unsafe food then leaving town.

    “There are more important things than a little bit of money. Don’t you know that?”

  12. Joe says (and forgive me, I paraphrase), “100 years ago, more people died from food poisoning than they do today. There are a lot more govt regulations today than there were 100 years ago. Therefore, govt regulations save lives.”

    Can anyone spot the problem with that reasoning?

  13. I hear the terrorists are using these as sources for cash and equipment.

  14. Actually, the precipitous decline in food poisoning since the Progressive era only backs up the knowledge I gained first hand: that shoddy kitchen practices can be hidden from customers, but the boss gets on your back to keep the place decent because of the Health Inspector.

  15. Hey, you want to hear something else stupid? I live in a town with quite a few ice-cream carts. Technically, those guys have to have permits! What the fuck is that about?

  16. anon 4:37 – Ha! I can see the ads…

    Man with Curry: “I killed a judge.”

    Man at Table, eating: “Mmmmm…that’s good.”

    Woman with Cheesesteak: “I helped a terrorist get a fake ID”

    Woman carrying sack: “Look, the kids needed dinner…”

  17. I like the UL model. But it’s silly to say that food handling and preparation regulations have not been beneficial.

    The reputation model doesn’t function at all in the food service biz. It is too all or nothing. i.e. “Joe’s” has a great reputation until one night when a couple dozen people get violently ill, or a couple of people get dead, then they have a bad reputation and no patrons at all. So they change the sign out front to “Big Al’s” redo the decor and reopen with a questionable reputation, and if no one keels over in the first few months they acquire a great reputation until…

    What is needed is someone inspecting the everyday practices in order to prevent problems. The private sector is the best place to handle this, but if a place is serving over a hundred people a week, I think they should be regulated.

  18. From the article:

    ”It’s all about how to avoid making people sick,” said Jack Breslin, director of the consumer protection program at the San Francisco health department. ”If no one is looking over my shoulder to see how I’m storing, processing and serving my food, the greater the risk of something bad happening.”

    But if I’m in someone’s house, it’s pretty darn easy to see how someone is storing, processing, and serving the food. How easy is it for the average customer to get into the kitchen at most restaurants just to look around? Or is letting customers into a commercial kitchen somehow a health risk?

    In sight, it must be right.

  19. why is the concept of “reputation” so foreign to bureaucrats?

  20. I would be willing to drop bureaucratic ignorance of reputational risk if they had even an inkling of “assumed risk”.

  21. “why is the concept of “reputation” so foreign to bureaucrats?”

    Most, if not all, of the customers who hear about these establishments do so through word of mouth, apparently. Thus, the reputation feedback loop has a high probability of working. For a real restaurant, however, most people are going to find out about by seeing a sign or some other advertisement. They are not getting actual information about the place, but self serving statements with little or no opportunity to determine their validity.

    Which is to say, places this small and informal probably don’t need the same level of oversight as more the more familiar, commercial model of restaurant that Boards of Health were created to regulate.

  22. The inspectors, of course, are un-bribe-able public servants, here to protect the populace from those notorious profiteers that open up a restaurant, poison the attendents, and pack up and leave the next day.
    I favor the UL model. Or have insurance companies conduct routine inspections.

  23. The family doing take-out for their apartment building – sounds like a profit motive. But folks who have twice-monthly supper clubs; do they have a profit motive by collecting cost of ingredients from their guests?

    If they don’t have a profit motive, and they don’t do other business-like things like using restaurant expenses in the IRS game, then I can see a valid defense that these are not in fact businesses, and can’t be “illegal businesses” by tautology.

  24. The problem with reputation is that in order to acquire a bad reputation a bad thing must first happen. And since we have an inalienable right to never have bad experiences, especially with our health (an inalienable right that should be subsidized!), relaxing restaurant inspection laws means that now and then somebody will get sick.

    So we must shut down these businesses. It’s for the children!

  25. “They lack certification from any government agency and are, strictly speaking, against the law.”

    Oh how scary! How did we diners ever get by before the government was here to protect us? When the costs of compliance get so high it pushes some purveyors right off the “radar”.

  26. “How did we diners ever get by before the government was here to protect us?”

    A lot more people got sick.

  27. A couple years after I stopped working there, a restaurant in my town got shut down by the Board of Health. As in, the agent took plates off diners’ tables in the middle of lunch, told them they didn’t have to pay, and locked the door. Horrible, oppressive tyrant!

    You see, the granulated rat poison (for the severe rodent infestation) was stored on the shelf next to the parmisian cheese, in an identical white bucket. There were ash trays on the cook line overflowing into food. Perishable food rotting at room temperature, etc etc etc.

    If any of you want to argue that a few thousand extra illnesses, and a few dozen extra deaths, every year is a worthwhile price to pay to not have Health Inspectors, feel free. But don’t blow “free market” sunshine up my skirt, because I’ve been there. A reliable health inspection regime is the best thing that ever happened to the restaurant business.

  28. Joe,

    1) I was suggesting comparing the change in the rate of food poisoning between the two to test the effectiveness of the regulations.

    2)”Most food consumed in home kitchens is also inspected, at the packing plant and supermarket.”

    Same with restaurants, but in both cases; not always by the blood sucking, dishonest, Maffioso rat, government types.

    3) But, at least, they have to entertain questions from those who do fill out the government paper work.

    “What’s more, a bribed public servant who gives a pass…”

    Who said anything about bribery? Government employees don’t really do that kind of thing, do they?

    “You clearly enjoy casting aspersions at people who don’t work at for-profit companies”

    ?? Why would you say something like that? 🙂 But any way it’s not non-profit workers I object to. Only government tax thieves… er uh… I mean leaching…no, or rather… Just kidding Joe. Some of my best friends are…It’s true! You’re a city planner, right? No problem. If I were president and you were going to be in my administration, I would put you in a foreign policy position and I bet that’s where you would put me, huh?

    “but you don’t seem to have much understanding of how government agencies work.”

    I understand that they obtain their funds in a much different manner then non-government enterprises do.

  29. Rick,

    1) There are many more opportunities for potentially dangerous screwups on a commercial kitchen vs. a private home. So much more to keep track of, much more incentive to cut corners, shift changes screwing up communication, etc. Also, a single screw up can hurt a lot more people when it happens in a high-volume commercial kitchen.

    2) Most food consumed in home kitchens is also inspected, at the packing plant and supermarket.

    3) You clearly haven’t worked as a line cook. The guys who keep the food clean and cold are not the people responsible for the paperwork.

    Bo, and up against those unbribable public servants, we have industry “watchdogs” who have no idea where their bread is buttered. What’s more, a bribed public servant who gives a pass to a filthy rathole is going to lose his job, his reputation, and possibly his freedom and life savings, if someone gets sick in that rathole. You clearly enjoy casting aspersions at people who don’t work at for-profit companies, but you don’t seem to have much understanding of how government agencies work.

  30. Joe says (and forgive me, I paraphrase), “100 years ago, more people died from food poisoning than they do today. There are a lot more govt regulations today than there were 100 years ago. Therefore, govt regulations save lives.”

    Can anyone spot the problem with that reasoning

    OK, First of all, wide spread govt. regs concerning restaurants are a much more recent occurrence. To measure their effectiveness, we have to compare the “at home” food poisoning rate with the “restaurant” rate since the regulations. (I’m guessing the comparison stayed pretty much the same. Only a guess though. I have no data to offer.) The main reason for the continuous increase in general food safety going back at least 120 years has little to do with the government and a lot to do with better technology and the increased affordability of safety. The profit motive is a powerful disincentive to poisoning folks, so at first, restaurant inspections didn’t have much effect on safety at all…

  31. …but as health inspections have gotten more demanding, there is reason to think that they have hurt food safety at smaller places. This is because the guy who’s supposed to keep the food safe so customers don’t get sick needs to do two basic things: One, keep the food clean (in preperation and storage) and Two, keep it cold. But, now the same guy has to keep records for the government inspector and do things like, making sure the paper work aspects of the restaurant are carried out so many feet away from the food preperation area etc. This extra work, done for the government inspector diverts his attention from making sure the food is clean and cold.

  32. Rick, someone named “Bo” at 11:55 wrote about bribed public servants, in an effort to demonstrate that government inspectors are more likely ignore problems than those hired by a restaurant consortium.

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