Restaurant owner denies deliberately covering hygiene rating with plants and says it's ruined his business

Carl Gough stands outside the front of his restaurant
Carl Gough, of The Muddy Toad in Pontypool, has spoken of how a food hygiene rating of one and the subsequent fine and court appearance for allegedly covering it up with plants has ruined his business -Credit:Carl Gough

A restaurateur who was fined for allegedly covering a food hygiene rating with plant pots last year has said the resulting court case has almost ruined his business. Carl Gough, owner of The Muddy Toad in Pontypool, was prosecuted by Torfaen County Borough Council for failing to clearly display a food hygiene rating of one in the window of the venue in the summer of 2023 – only months after he’d taken the business on and set about transforming its image into a casual fine dining restaurant.

Carl maintains he did not deliberately conceal the rating with plants and that he had “every intention” of paying the £200 fine but didn’t pay it because the business was struggling financially and he needed to “prioritise paying staff and bills”. He explained how the original rating, which was changed to a four after a re-rating weeks after the one ranking was issued, crippled the restaurant to such an extent that for weeks very few customers turned up. He claims it continues to have a devastating effect on his business which he feels the restaurant might not be able to recover from.

“Sadly because of that rating we were completely boycotted,” he told WalesOnline from the New Inn restaurant. “For weeks afterwards we had a fully-staffed restaurant and no customers. It would be damaging for any business but especially a new business trying to find its feet.” For the latest Welsh news delivered to your inbox sign up to our newsletter.

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An exterior view of The Muddy Toad, Pontypool
The Muddy Toad, Pontypool -Credit:Google Maps

He said he regrets not paying the fine and wishes he’d dealt with it at the time but he maintains the “whole thing was unjust”. “The situation occurred because the original rating was issued because there was a clash of personalities between our head chef at the time and the inspector from the council,” Carl claimed of the inspection which happened in June last year. “It led to an argument on site and the council issued a no confidence in management notice, which led to an immediate one-star rating. In our feedback the council suggested strongly that we get rid of that member of staff and we acted on that immediately.

“I begged them for a re-rating as soon as possible and they came in August and said they were impressed with the changes we’d made and they issued us with a four. At that point we were gutted the whole thing had happened but we were happy it seemed to be over. But he came back a few days later with our new four-star rating in one hand and a £200 fine in the other. When I asked what it was for he told me it was because we’d covered up the old rating. In hindsight the plant may have been slightly hanging over it but it certainly wasn’t deliberate and it was clearly visible to people close enough to the building. Perhaps if you were standing on the other side of the road you might not have seen it. There would have been little point covering it. The fact of the matter is it was all over Google, in the [South Wales] Argus, all over social media, everywhere. We would even tell customers and explain what happened. In any event that rating actually wasn’t accurate at that stage anyway so I felt the fine was really harsh and unjust.”

A spokeswoman for the council claimed the local authority had previously warned Carl against obscuring ratings. “It is the law for food businesses to display their hygiene rating in a clearly visible place to allow consumers to make informed choices about where to eat or shop for food,” they said. “The food business owner, Mr Gough of Hospitality and Investments Ltd, was reminded of the requirements and asked to remove the potted plants. However, when officers returned a few days later, the plants were once again obscuring the hygiene rating sticker. This led to a £200 fixed penalty notice being issued to Mr Gough who chose not to pay.”

A waiter serving customers in a restaurant
Carl says the restaurant is financially struggling and might not recover from the episode -Credit:Carl Gough
A chef preparing food
New head chef Nuno at work in the kitchen at The Muddy Toad -Credit:Carl Gough

Carl denies he knew about any concerns the rating was being covered before he was handed the fine. "I reject the assertion the council warned us in advance about the [covering of the] sticker," he said. "The first time we knew there was an issue was the moment we were handed the fine along with the new sticker."

Asked why he didn’t pay the fine straightaway in order to try and move on quickly Carl replied: “Context is important here which hasn’t been reported elsewhere. At the time I was thinking: ‘Oh my God, we’ve got a one rating in the window, the press are writing about us, people are commenting all sorts on Facebook, and we’ve got no customers. Financially it was very difficult. With that backdrop I basically couldn’t afford it on top of everything else.

“I had to prioritise my bills and commitments with suppliers and staff. I was emailing the council all the time explaining our financial situation because of the nonsense created around the original rating. I told them we didn’t have the spare £200 to pay the fine. In fairness they agreed to an extension but I’ve not been in a position to pay it and they took it to court. I’ve always had every intention to pay the fine. I’d never been to a court in my life until that day.”

Inside The Muddy Toad
Inside The Muddy Toad, which now has a hygiene rating of four -Credit:Carl Gough

Carl said he decided it was best he pleaded guilty at Cwmbran Magistrates’ Court to failing to display a valid food hygiene rating sticker and was fined £200. He was also ordered to contribute £146.40 towards the council’s costs and pay a victim surcharge of £80.

“In hindsight I should have fought back because fundamental untruths have been published about the whole thing and it’s unfair,” Carl continued. “I don’t know if we have the resources to move past it. The damage this has done and continues to do to our business is beyond measure. It just feels like the story has been structured in a way to cause us more damage.

“It feels like ever since we started there has been a negative press around us. Everything has painted us in a negative light. It’s really disheartening. I put everything into this. We’ve put tens of thousands into re-doing the place and especially the kitchen. We’ve worked really hard to turn the place around and create something really positive for our community built on honesty, integrity, and good quality but unfortunately there seems to be an onslaught of intent to paint us in the opposite light. We’ve got loyal customers who see us for what we are. Unfortunately something that happened a year ago is still haunting us.”

A spokeswoman for Torfaen council added: “Mr Gough was given four opportunities to pay but failed to do so resulting in further legal action being taken. We understand the impact low food hygiene ratings can have on businesses and we endeavour to respond to requests for re-rating inspections at the earliest opportunity. In this case The Muddy Toad was re-inspected well within the statutory three-month timescale and a food hygiene rating of four was subsequently issued.

“Food hygiene ratings provide important information to consumers about hygiene standards at food businesses to enable them to make informed choices about where to buy and eat food. The proper display of valid rating is essential to ensure the effectiveness of the scheme.”