The Scarlet Letter You Want

The Scarlet Letter You Want

Wonder what it’s like when a city starts giving out letter grades for health inspections and operators have to display them on their front doors? Let’s take a look at how it’s working in New York City, where this system has been a fact of life for the past six months.

The city’s highly influential Department of Health (the no-trans-fats movement got its start here) began requiring restaurants to post letter grades on July 1, 2010. The idea was to give consumers a quick summary of the results of an establishment’s most recent sanitary inspection so they could make informed choices about where they want to eat. The requirement would also “create a new incentive for the city’s restaurants to maintain high food safety standards,” the Department of Health declared.

Incentive indeed. Operators feared going in that if they post any grade other than an A, no one new will eat there and the regulars won’t come back. Forget digital badmouthing on Yelp and Twitter. Nothing kills a restaurant’s reputation like highly visible signage that officially declares a restaurant to be unsanitary.

Now that the letter grading system has been in effect for six months, the question becomes: How many “A” grades are being given out? The NYC Department of Health says results are better than they expected.

“Of the 10,000 restaurants that received grade cards during the first six months of the initiative, 57 percent were awarded A grades and 87 percent received either A or B grades,” the department says.

But at least they’re cutting the non-A restaurants some slack. “If a restaurant does not earn an A on its first inspection, the Health Department does not issue a grade. Instead, it conducts an unannounced second inspection roughly a month later, and grades the second inspection,” the official policy states.

Thus when a restaurant like Denny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern—the most popular restaurant in New York City according to Zagat—got a C-worthy 35 violation points on its Dec. 8 inspection, it was in limbo until it cleaned up its act. The restaurant did so, earning an A when inspected in January.

Just how tough are the inspections? Only 27 percent of restaurants got an A grade (0-13 violation points) on their initial inspection. Thus nearly three-quarters of restaurants didn’t meet the standard. That’s a pretty stiff standard, by anyone’s reckoning.

Of those getting a B (14-27 violation points), 44 percent got an A on their second chance. Seventy-two percent of C-level restaurants improved enough to merit an A or B on their second inspection.

To date, the NYC Department of Health has inspected 10,000 restaurants, with 1,300 remaining stuck at the C level. Those restaurants get once-a-month visits from the health inspector until they reach a B-level score. If they don’t, the Department of Health can shut them down.

The department recently announced a further incentive for A-level restaurants.

“As of January 19, 2011, restaurants that achieve A grades during their sanitary inspections will be exempt from any fines for sanitary violations. The new policy, announced by Mayor Bloomberg in his State of the City address, gives restaurants an additional incentive to maintain the highest standards of food safety.”

This policy is an incentive, but it also a major disincentive to non-A-scoring restaurants, which the statistics tell us number quite a few. In addition to the prominent display of the business-killing substandard letter grade, the restaurant has to fork over money for fines. Operators can be on the road to oblivion in no time.

It’s a fair policy if inspection standards are uniformly applied. They’re fair on paper but, as every restaurant operator will tell you, they are open to interpretation by individual health inspectors. Some are strict, some will work with you.

A quick trip through the Health Department’s database finds that most of the big name restaurants in the city tend to get scores that sneak them into the A category, even though inspectors find plenty of violations each time they visit. But we did find an impressive number of McDonald’s units that got perfect scores of zero violation points—quite an accomplishment for an operation that runs on minimum-wage labor.

New York City Department of Health plans to visit the city’s remaining 14,000 restaurants by the end of the year. In the meantime, other cities are tinkering with the idea of implementing a similar system of posted letter grades. Washington, DC’s city council will soon be voting on the Restaurant Hygiene Transparency Act of 2011. It would require posted letter grades, too. Could your town be next?