John Kambouris worked hard to earn an “A” sanitation rating at Broadway Pizza & Pasta on West 231st Street, the restaurant his family has owned for two generations. He’s been through his fair share of inspections, and knows generally what city agents are looking for when they visit.
But sharp-eyed Angel Pagan, a compliance advisor for the city’s small business services agency, wasn’t some hurried city inspector. He spotted potential problems from across the dining room and offered solutions just as quickly as he cited the applicable city codes.
“I see the ‘no smoking’ signs. Those aren’t allowed anymore,” Pagan said, pointing to the signs dotting the pizzeria’s back wall. “Regulations now require them to say, ‘No smoking, including electronic cigarettes.’”
Kambouris seemed taken aback.
“I didn’t even know,” he said. “We’ve had those signs up for the last 15 years.”
The sight of customers vaping away in a corner with an inspector present could mean a $250 violation, Pagan said.
A missing CPR sign on the back wall. No ‘$10 minimum debit card purchases’ sign at the cash register. A propped-open door obscuring sanitation department permits. An unlocked chest freezer.
The number of seemingly small infractions Pagan spotted could have resulted in violations from any of six regulating city departments. Depending on the inspector, little things like a few cigarette butts on the sidewalk in front of the store, or a supply closet door left ajar, could have cost Kambouris his hard-won rating, even if his kitchen was spotless.
But Pagan wasn’t there to write out violation reports. He and colleague William Vega were there purely to help small business owners identify potential violations and recommend ways to resolve problems before they became costly and disruptive fines. They were invited by the Kingsbridge Business Improvement District to offer consultation walk-through for the food and service establishments in the area.
“This service is completely free and provides free education to business owners about the city’s regulations,” BID service coordinator Jennifer Sproull said.
She, Vega and Pagan had spent the day visiting Kingsbridge businesses. One store owner learned she needed a better ventilation system for her nail salon, and a deli owner got valuable advice on how to get his store’s fire suppression up to code.
“We’ve been trained as inspectors by six of the city’s enforcement agencies that impact businesses,” Vega said. “Buildings, fire, environmental protection, air, grease traps, health, consumer affairs, sanitation — Angel’s job is to find violations and to educate the business owners. And it’s all free.”
Walk-throughs are just one aspect of the agency’s program. Small business advocates work with owners to negotiate leases, apply for loans, get required permits, and recruit employees.
The consulting program was developed in 2016, primarily for new businesses.
“But it’s become so popular now that we’ve expanded it to businesses that are already open and in the system, but want that extra help to prevent violations,” Pagan said.
The agency has about four multilingual consultants trained by city departments who conduct mock inspections of the small businesses. Consultants like Pagan point out potential problems that could result in a violation, and offer helpful advice to resolve issues before an actual official city inspection.
No fines or violations are written up from these visits.
“We are just here for their education,” Vega said, “not for city enforcement.”
Even though the walk-through is free, it took some coaxing from Sproull to convince Kingsbridge businesses to sign up.
“A lot of times our retailers are very scared to participate,” Sproull said. “They don’t believe me when I tell them about this program and that it’s free. They’re afraid they’re going get a violation or a fine after the visit.”
Some careful scrutiny could save these businesses thousands of dollars in violations, Vega said. Just mounting a sign outside requires permits from the sanitation, buildings and transportation departments; approval of plans; installation by a master electrician; and an annual permit fee. If the permits aren’t in order, the business owner could be slapped with a $7,000 violation that requires the careful removal and reinstallation of the exterior sign.
The small business services agency can help even after a business owner is issued a violation. Consultants work with them to resolve the problem within allotted times in order to avoid fines.
“But if it does progress to them going to hearings, we do our best to prep them,” Vega said. “With a lot of violations, if you take care of them before the hearing — that’s usually 30 days — very often they can be rescinded.”
Many small business owners in Kingsbridge are immigrants and may be distrustful of city agents. Some hire private consultants who may only be familiar with the regulations of one or two city agencies instead of the six or more business owners deal with regularly. These consultants, Vega said, often do more harm than good.
“We try to take a more holistic approach,” he said. “We ask them what they’re trying to do now and what they want to do with their future plans, and offer them the best solutions for success.”
After about an hour at Broadway Pizza & Pasta, Pagan offered Kambouris a list of suggestions that would ensure he’d continue passing city inspections without a problem.
“It was educational,” Kambouris said. “It’s not a bad idea for business owners. We don’t know everything, and this is a great thing.
“It’s always better to know.”