18 months after New York City’s rigorous letter-grading restaurant inspection program was put in place, officials in the city’s health department are proclaiming it a rousing success. Restaurateurs—surprisingly, even those who earned the coveted “A” letter grade—say otherwise.
New York City officials rightly trumpet some key improvements they say have resulted from the letter-grading system to date:
• Salmonella cases have fallen 14 percent to the lowest rate in 20 years.
• Seventy-two percent of the city’s restaurants have earned “A” grades, up from 65 percent.
• Revenues at restaurants are up 9.3 percent since grading began.
• ABCEats NYC, a free iPhone app, now lets diners locate “A” restaurants from any street corner in the city.
“New Yorkers overwhelmingly support the grading system and based on today’s news it’s not hard to see why,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a press conference announcing the results. “Restaurant grades have been good for public health and good for the economy. New York City is known for its great restaurants and now it will be known for food safety, too.”
Sounds like a win-win all the way around, no? Not if you ask New York City restaurant operators, which is what New York’s City Council did via an online survey. More than 1,300 of them responded, but not in the manner expected. Officials anticipated gripes from operators who had received a “B” or the dreaded “C” and had to post those letter grades—which signify that substandard health safety and cleanliness conditions await a patron within—on their doors.
What was surprising was the response from holders of the clean-as-a-whistle ‘A’ grades.
“A majority of restaurateurs that earned an “A” said the letter-grading system was poor,” Council speaker Christine Quinn told the New York Times. “This isn’t about getting complaints from those who are getting ‘Bs’ and ‘Cs.’”
A hearing last week shed light on operator concerns. Chief among them was the survey finding that 68 percent of “A” restaurants say the letter-grading system made operating their restaurants more expensive and more of a hassle.
“The inspectors come into our premises as enemies; it’s wrong,“ one chain operator told the Times. Another factor: operators who make changes to satisfy one inspector’s stipulations find that the person conducting the subsequent inspection disagrees with the original inspector’s opinion. Another round of changes ensues.
A third sore point was the system by which operators can appeal and challenge violations and grades, with successful appeals depending a lot on who’s sitting in judgment.
Politics come into play, too. Thomas Keller’s four-star Per Se had little trouble upgrading to an “A” after earning only a “B” in a Jan. 31, 2012 inspection. A quick call from a Per Se manager did the trick, enabling the restaurant to upgrade to “A” status without waiting around for an appeal hearing, as other operators must do. The New York Post reported thusly:
“A restaurant manager placed a call to Beth Torin, executive director of the Bureau of Food Safety, to ‘clarify the rules around the storage of their ice tray,’ which was one of the violations, a Health Department official said.
“And it also knocked down another violation by insisting the inspector made a mistake when she claimed a kitchen worker didn’t wash her hands after eating a fried donut and returning to food prep. The Per Se manager told Torin the worker did wash her hands but that inspector Shauna Thompson left the kitchen momentarily and missed it.
“Suddenly, enough violations were stricken to give Per Se its “A.”
The lesson other operators can draw from the New York City experience is that a letter-grading system that’s so strict that even those restaurants in compliance hate it needs plenty of tweaking before being adopted anywhere else.
That might be especially true now that even developers pay attention to restaurant letter grades.
When the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn that will house the NBA team currently known as the New Jersey Nets sought food vendors for their new arena, one stipulation was that the applicant had to have an “A” on their most recent health department inspection. Otherwise, no dice.
When opportunities this big rest on the whims of individual health inspectors, the system needs to be bulletproof.