Bugs Money

tales 8 Bugs MoneyEditor’s note: There are corrections for this story at the end of it. 

Manhattan has a mind-boggling number of Irish bars—at least 85, according to Zagat—and Stephen Ceol has staked a claim in many of them.

“I’m the king of the Irish bars,” Mr. Ceol said proudly, standing by the bar at one such Gaelic-themed gastropub in midtown in the wee hours of a Wednesday night last month.

Upon arrival, the self-proclaimed king, bejeweled in Prada eyeglasses and a shiny necklace with a purple skull pendant, had received the royal treatment. Lingering patrons were told to leave, thus granting his excellency exclusive use of the premises. Later, the bartender paid him tribute, slapping a thick stack of twenties down on the counter.

Mr. Ceol, 40, isn’t an owner, manager or even some shadowy mob figure shaking down management for protection money.

He’s the exterminator.

“It’s a dirty job with social aspects,” said Mr. Ceol. “I enjoy seeing my customers.”

After chatting up the bartender, he headed downstairs, where he slipped into a pair of rubber gloves, fired up a flashlight, brandished his cockroach gel gun, and went on to recover the bodies of three dead bugs from a glue trap in the boiler room.

Otherwise, the place seemed pretty clean. “I could eat here,” he declared.

Afterward, Mr. Ceol hopped into his gleaming white Ford F-150 and sped uptown to the next restaurant on his list, a charming country-style kitchen on the Upper West Side, where properly empty mousetraps were duly rewarded with free leftover baked goods.

Hey, a gracious exterminator accepts whatever little perks he gets. Bug slayers aren’t quite celebrated the same way as chefs. There is no James Beard Award for Best Pest Control. Even the bartenders tend to get more respect. Yet, behind the scenes, these unsung heroes of the ever-volatile food-services industry play an increasingly vital role in an era when restaurant openings seem increasingly less common than restaurant closures by the city’s Health Department.

Indeed, there may never have been a better time to be a restaurant exterminator in New York City.

“Restaurateurs are deathly afraid of the Health Department,” said Mr. Ceol, who added that operators these days seem more willing to pay higher prices for enhanced extermination services, considering that even a temporary shutdown for sanitary violations can sometimes be enough to financially sink their business.

“We protect our customers’ reputations,” he said. “I have a high degree of satisfaction when we do a good job.”

From midnight until dawn, Mr. Ceol regularly makes his rounds, checking traps and spreading deadly cockroach gel throughout the cracks and crevices of the city’s culinary system, to the recurring retro sound of the “Miami Vice Theme.”

That is, the ring tone on his cell phone.

Given the late hours, the caller is usually his business partner, Scott Bregman—the entomological Rico Tubs to his Sonny Crockett—who is, meanwhile, rescuing restaurants from rodents in other parts of the city.

The dynamic duo’s 10-year-old company, Ecotect Scientific Pest Elimination Inc., is headquartered out of Mr. Ceol’s home, located, rather appropriately for a purveyor of deadly poisons, along Hemlock Drive in Sussex, N.J.

The pair also handle pest control at New Jersey restaurants, but those establishments generally don’t face the same level of “pest pressure” as the ones in Manhattan, with its underground tunnels and subways, rampant construction, piles of refuse, and people living on top of each other, all conditions conducive to vermin.

Nor do they face the same challenging regulatory climate.