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Taco Bell Rats become Media Darlings

NYC- It was enough to make you choke on your chalupa.

To the disgust of millions who watched on TV or in person, a gang of brazen rats took over a Taco Bell/KFC restaurant in Greenwich Village yesterday – scampering across tables like they owned the joint.

The vermin slid down the backs of chairs, left trails of droppings on the floor and glared at passersby through the window until health inspectors shut down the eatery on Sixth Ave. near W. Fourth St.

“I just ate there last night – I think I’m going to be sick,” said Earl Heffintrayer, 29. “I’ll never come back here again.”

The invasion began a little after midnight, while the restaurant was closed, creating a public relations nightmare for Taco Bell just two months after an E.Coli outbreak at the chain.

Photographers and TV crews descended on the scene – and it almost seemed like the 20-odd rodents were playing to the crowd.

At one point, as a Daily News reporter pressed close to the window, a rat hopped over, stood on its hind legs, put its paws against the glass and stared back.

“He’s coming for his close-up,” a spectator quipped.

The stomach-churning images were soon flashed across the nation on the Internet and TV news shows, leaving Americans a little queasy over breakfast.

Those familiar with the location said the rat pack was not a surprise.

“It’s the dirtiest place in the neighborhood,” said Joel Cohen, whose apartment overlooks the restaurant. “It’s a blight.”

Marcus Bonner, 19, who had just finished his night shift at the McDonald’s across the street, said he had been fired by Taco Bell because he complained about sanitary conditions at the eatery.

“There’s a hole in the wall behind the grill,” he said. “The rats come through the back of the building where the trash is kept.”

By 10:30 a.m., a city Health Department inspector had arrived and quickly taped two yellow “Closed” notices on the windows.

The operator of the franchise, ADF Fifth Operating Corp., did not return calls, but the parent company was quick to respond.

“This is an isolated incident at a single restaurant … and it is totally unacceptable,” Taco Bell said in a statement. “The restaurant is closed and we will not allow it to be reopened until it has been sanitized and given a complete clean bill of health.”

The company blamed “construction in the basement” of the two-story building.

The location was cited for a rat infestation Dec. 11 and the problem was remedied, said Mayor Bloomberg’s spokesman Stu Loeser, who added that most city restaurants face health code violations at some point, correct them and reopen.

The number of rodent complaints has just about doubled since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, climbing to 32,200 in the fiscal year ending June30. But a report this month showed a drop of 13% from last year.

The Village franchise is likely to be closed for days, but the fallout could linger longer.

Taco Bell has barely recovered from last year’s E. Coli disaster, which was blamed on lettuce and made 70 people ill.

And it seems like investors lost their appetite a little. On a down day on the market, stock for Yum Brands Inc., which owns Taco Bell, fell 55 cents to $60.51.

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