The viral video that emerged last week of rats scurrying across the counter of a French Quarter restaurant at night served as a stark reminder, on the off chance anyone needed it: We may like rodents in our animated films and research labs, but we’d rather not see them grooming themselves on the cutting board of the neighborhood oyster bar.
The video, shot by someone passing the window of the French Market Restaurant & Bar on Decatur Street, was quickly posted on Facebook.
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Media pounced, viewers shuddered and Anthony Marullo, the establishment’s chastened owner, closed his doors for a few days of repairs, despite a public declaration that “our food service areas are 100 percent clean and safe at all times.”
“It can happen to any restaurant here,” a bartender from across the street said in a televised interview — a consolation to Marullo, if no one else.
And on Thursday, public rodent control workers fanned out across the Vieux Carre to lower poisoned bait into the sewers, an offensive that city officials insisted had been scheduled for that day all along.
Asked at a news conference if New Orleans is “the rattiest city in America,” as a national survey on pest sightings suggested in 2015, city Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Control Board Director Claudia Riegel said that dubious distinction is out of line with observable reality.
“We’re just not,” she said.
The local board handles rats out of doors and in public buildings and spaces, while the state Department of Health is responsible for the regulation and inspection of businesses.
A review of 2017 data from the state shows that 53 establishments that sell food in the city were found to have rodents on-site, about 1.7 percent of all the addresses checked out by inspectors last year.
Those businesses were almost all restaurants — as opposed to groceries or other places that sell food — and were concentrated in the French Quarter and other neighborhoods near the river.
In many cases, inspection reports cite the presence of droppings or rodents in traps as evidence. But at Cleo’s, a now-shuttered Central Business District eatery, the timing left less room for doubt. “Large rodent ran across (the) floor during inspection,” the report notes.
Michael Vidrine, who oversees health inspections for the department, said Louisiana will inspect an establishment unannounced anywhere from one to four times a year, with more frequent visits likely depending on the population served (the sick or elderly) and the food offered (raw meat or oysters).
He said evidence of the presence of rodents is a “critical violation” that triggers a reinspection within three to seven days, and that businesses tend to bring themselves back into compliance.
Closures are rare, and Health Department spokesman Robert Johannessen said even the most high-profile local closure — of the McKenzie’s Bakery chain in 2000 — was done voluntarily. He noted, however, that the department had already put inspectors at the chain's Desire Parkway plant around the clock and had begun the process of shutting it down.
Louisiana has been compared unfavorably to other states or cities that are quicker to shut down restaurants at the first sight of a pest infestation, but the state contends its goal is to keep restaurants clean and open.
Vidrine said that while he understands the latest video was “shocking,” he has full confidence in the state’s inspection system overall.
“Our system follows the FDA Food Code and has shown that it works,” he said. “When you’re doing the number of inspections we do, there are going to be some things that will not be perfect. But our goal is to work with these guys and protect public health, not shut people down just to say we did it.”
The rats people see in the French Quarter and throughout the city tend to be one of two varieties: roof rats or Norway rats, said Tulane University ecologist Michael Blum, who has been trapping and studying rats for 10 years as head of the university’s New Orleans Rat Project.
Roof rats are smaller, have narrower features and live in trees, typically coming into homes from above. Norway rats are the larger, burrowing rats that live along the banks of the Mississippi River and tend to raid nearby population centers in search of food.
Both types breed prolifically — Blum said an adult female is almost always pregnant — and the French Quarter, with its old buildings, high concentration of restaurants, regular accumulation of street trash and proximity to the river, is especially susceptible to rodent infestation.
Tim Kraus, owner of Signature Pest Control, said the key to rodent control in buildings is “physical exclusion” — sealing up holes in walls and under doors to keep them out. But this is difficult, considering that a rodent can squeeze through a hole the size of a quarter and a mouse can get through a hole the size of a dime.
Restaurants need regular inspections by a pest control company, he said. It’s not something you can do once and forget about.
Kraus said that while vigilant businesses can stay ahead of the problem, rats will find the weak links in the chain in a neighborhood full of restaurants and old buildings.
“How can you block every hole or crack that is the size of a dime in the French Quarter?” he said. “You’re not going to do it.”
Riegel, the director of the city's rodent control board, said the city baits the sewers in the French Quarter with poison at least four times a year and Thursday’s initiative was part of its usual early summer regimen. She said the poison, a blood anticoagulant that causes organ failure in rats that have eaten it, is suspended out of reach of people and pets and out of the water in the storm drains.
Workers monitor the baits to see which ones are being eaten and will tend to them in the coming weeks.
While videos like the one last week and national surveys of dubious methodology might focus public attention on rats in New Orleans, Riegel said the city manages the population with its periodic treatments citywide.
New Orleans doesn’t have high levels of rat-borne illnesses, she said.
But while the city can knock back the rodent population, businesses and residents are on the front lines of the fight and can do simple things like keeping pet food inside and secure, sealing up holes and keeping lids on trash cans closed. Even cleaning up pet waste and not letting fruit trees grow rampant and drop fruit in yards helps, Riegel said.
“Sanitation is the No. 1 rule for rodent control,” she said.
The French Market Restaurant video was not the first time the city’s popularity with rats grabbed the public spotlight.
In 2014, comedian Hannibal Buress went on "The Tonight Show" and recounted a stand-off he had with a large rat in the restroom at Coop’s Place, just down the street from the French Market Restaurant. He joked about the reaction of the waiter, who he said put him on the defensive with a “rat speech.”
“He said, ‘Man, we are right by the Mississippi River, these buildings are 200, 300 years old, they got rats everywhere. Even five-star restaurants have rats,’ ” Buress riffed in a bit that has been viewed almost 2 million times on YouTube. “Somehow he made me feel like the weirdo for bringing up rats in a restaurant. I don’t know what type of Jedi mind trick this was … ’cuz I still ended up ordering food there.”
Before that, a 2012 news report said a customer complained to state authorities that rats “the size of beer cans” fell through the back dining-room ceiling at Frankie & Johnny’s restaurant Uptown, sending customers and staff scrambling in terror.
Blum, of Tulane, agreed that while people try hard, and largely succeed, at keeping rats out of view in their day-to-day lives, those moments when the two worlds collide are unavoidable and memorable.
“When something like this video comes up, there is some traction because it resonates; it is a common shared experience,” he said. “Everybody has a rat story.”
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this article.