By TIFFANY REVELLE The Daily Journal
Updated: 02/08/2012 12:20:27 AM PST
What's been happening to some local restaurants may be legal, but it isn't very nice, according to Ukiah Fire Marshal Chuck Yates.
Contractors from outside Mendocino County visit restaurants -- particularly those whose owners or employees don't speak fluent English -- claiming to be "from the fire marshal" and talk them into letting the contractor inspect the hood over the kitchen stove, then charge double what a local contractor would charge, according to Yates.
"I don't send people there," Yates said. "They also demand cash payment."
Fire code requires that a restaurant or other commercial kitchen must have the hood over its kitchen stove tested every six months to ensure its fire suppression system is in working order, Yates notes. Grease-laden vapors can cause oil buildup and increase the risk of a fire over time, triggering the need for an inspection, he said.
When it's working, nozzles inside the hood that are pointed down at the cooking surfaces release a mixture of water and flame retardant on a fire that gets hot enough to trip the system, which can also be activated by pulling an alarm switch on the wall.
Typically, a restaurant owner will stick with the same contractor to do the twice-a-year inspection, but Yates says a Los Angeles contractor has been coming up to Mendocino and Lake counties and looking for someone who will succumb to what he says is an intimidation tactic.
"What they're after is an employee, manager or owner who isn't too fluentn English, and I'm told what they do is say they're from the fire marshal," Yates said.
He notes they leave a tag on the inspected hood showing the contractor is legally licensed to do such inspections, so the practice is legal. He also notes he can't promote one business over another.
But the issue raised such concern that two special meetings were held at Ukiah City Hall to answer questions from restaurant owners.
Yates heard recently from the former owner of an Asian food restaurant on South State Street, which has since changed hands and become Anna's Bistro, serving Chinese and Japanese food.
The former owner, according to Yates, spoke fluent English, but the contractor caught employees when the owner wasn't there about four months ago.
Local contractor Stan Smith, who does commercial kitchen inspections for a list of local clients, notes they should cost about $175 on average, including parts that need to be routinely replaced.
"We're not an enforcement agency," he notes. "We're just offering a service."
Yates notes that the Southern California contractors who use the scare tactics and inflated prices don't limit their visits to Ukiah, and said he hopes restaurant owners or employees, if they are visited by someone claiming to be from the fire marshal's office, will contact their local fire marshal before agreeing to such an inspection.
The phone number for the Ukiah fire marshal's office is 463-6264.
Tiffany Revelle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 468-3523.