NEW YORK – New Yorkers are used to seeing rats where they catch their trains – not where they buy their burritos.
About a dozen rats were having a grand party Friday in a locked KFC/Taco Bell restaurant, scampering around the floor, playing with one another and sniffing for food as they dashed around tables and children’s high chairs.
Onlookers could not keep their eyes away from the jaw-dropping sight – a gang of urban vermin invading a restaurant that had been taking people’s chicken and taco orders just a day earlier. Video of the rats was seen around the world, disseminated on TV stations and the Internet.
“All you can eat once the store is locked,” one onlooker joked.
“They should handcuff them and throw the dirty rats in jail,” cabbie Wilson Paul said as he pulled over to gawk.
Word spread after a TV crew discovered the rat infestation Friday morning and filmed it through a window of the Greenwich Village building.
Health inspectors arrived, and the parent company for KFC and Taco Bell, Yum Brands, Inc., was again forced into damage-control mode a few months after enduring an E. coli outbreak.
The restaurant was not open when the rats were spotted. The company said construction in the basement on Thursday appeared to have stirred up the rodents.
“This is completely unacceptable and is an absolute violation of our high standards,” Yum Brands said in a statement.
Rats have long been a problem in densely populated New York City. They are frequently seen scampering through subway tunnels, rooting through trash, dashing across parks and burrowing into the walls of apartment buildings.
Greenwich Village tends to be a happy home for them because of its combination of older buildings and a tangle of subway lines converging just below street level.
Still, it is rare to see so many rats congregating in one place in such public view.
The city Department of Health had inspectors at the site on Friday for hours and by midday had posted a sign that read “CLOSED.”
“Today, this establishment had serious unsanitary conditions,” said Carol Feracho, a senior health inspector. “There were issues with vermin throughout.”
She said the infestation was “coming from the building,” with “openings” that allowed the vermin to enter. She provided no other details.
The owner could not be reached for comment, despite numerous efforts.
The franchise owner “is actively addressing this issue,” Yum Brands’ statement said, adding that the restaurant will remain closed until the problem is resolved.
Taco Bell sales have slumped since last year’s E. coli scare, in which more than 70 East Coast customers became ill. Federal officials said lettuce was the most likely source, and the company has changed suppliers.