Restaurant Letter Grades

restaurant letter gradesIn school, letter grading was straight forward: A+ for excellent, C for average, F for failing. Restaurant letter grades may not be so easy to understand, and implementation of the restaurant letter grading system garners plenty of complaints and criticism, especially in New York City.

Serious Eats interviewed a number of chefs, restaurant owners, and front-of-house staff about the letter grading system in the Big Apple and received an earful of complaints including implementation “catastrophe,” “ludicrous racket,” and “sucking money out of small, independent businesses.”

It began in July 2010 when the NYC health department began requiring restaurants throughout the city to post letter grades summarizing their sanitary inspection results. According to the DOH, implementation of posting restaurant letter grades had three goals: inform the public about inspection results in a simple, accessible way; improve sanitation and food safety practices; and reduce illness associated with dining out.

How Restaurant Letter Grading Works

In New York City, the grading system summarizes results reported as A, B, or C. Each health code violation results in a point assessment, and the total points create the restaurant letter grade: 0 to 13 earns an A, 14 to 27 earns a B, 28 or more earns a C. The program also uses dual inspections, so if an establishment does not earn an A on the initial inspection, the Health Department doesn’t issue a grade. Rather, a second inspection is then conducted about a month later that generates the restaurant’s letter grade. Restaurants with As will be re-inspected again in approximately a year, while those earning Bs or Cs will be re-inspected sooner and more frequently. The more egregious the infraction, the higher the points.

According to Food Safety News, “The ABCs of New York’s Restaurant Grades,” citations range from $200 to $2000 or more, and the article author cited an instance in which a private school was fined $900 for three fruit flies. Argument about the excessiveness of such a fine is only one part of the criticism of the program by many restaurateurs.

Problems with Letter Grading

The Serious Eats article points out that the number one complaint about the system is the arbitrary nature of both the inspections and inspectors. Inspectors’ knowledge levels vary widely. One restaurant owner recounts the devastation of receiving a low C, but upon being re-inspected a month later received an A. The catch? They changed almost nothing.

Moreover, many of the DOH rules don’t contribute to improved food safety. Case in point: wearing gloves. Gloves can get just as dirty as hands, especially if someone handles money with gloved hands. More frequent hand washing (rather than gloves) seems to be a more prudent approach.

Counterfeiting presents another problem. It’s no surprise that the requirement to post a restaurant letter grade gave rise to counterfeiting and those trying to scam the system. Smart Blog, Food Safety cites at least one owner admitted he’d rather pay the fine than post the notice and face his patrons’ reaction to a C grade.

Patron Reaction to Restaurant Letter Grades

Forbes writer, Josh Barro, shared his own reactions and approach in “Restaurant Letter Grades Make Your Food Worse.” Cold cheese meets government regulations but not the palette, and that’s only one of his contentions regarding required food temperatures and preparations. Barro also contends that the difference between earning an A or a B is based on regulations that don’t necessarily improve food safety and most likely detract from food quality and taste.

New Yorkers may or may not be paying much heed to the letter posted in the window of their favorite eateries. The restaurant letter grade may not carry nearly as much weight as what friends and friends of friends are posting on social media and review sites.

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