NYC Restaurant Grades Prove Successful

By: Michael Engle

Customer feedback is regarded as invaluable among chefs, restaurateurs, and fellow foodies.  Although few people will take stock in any one particular review, whether good or bad, most will affirm that a consensus will always be heard and, if necessary, can trigger a necessary change within the restaurant.  As New York City recently completed its first full calendar year of sanitation grades (the initiative was launched in July 2010), Associated Press' Cristian Salazar reports that despite some difficulties in reconciling the health code with traditional cooking methods, the city's grading system has been a popular success.

In New York City, restaurants are inspected on a regular basis, and are awarded a letter grade of A, B, or C.  (If a restaurant cannot fix a certain violation instantly, it can be shut down until the problem is rectified.)  Unlike elite universities, where an A is considered a rare privilege, it is relatively shameful for a restaurant not to receive an A.  This sentiment is reflected in statistics (more than 72% of eligible restaurants currently have an A grade--a 7% increase from last year) as well as in the court of public opinion.  Because grades are required to be prominently displayed on a front door or front-facing window, B's have in a way become unmistakable scarlet letters; while C-graded restaurants are rarely seen, one can imagine the grading system have hurt these businesses even more.

These grades, as well as the associated tests that restaurants must pass, benefit both the restaurant and the customers.  Last year, 2011, marked a 13.5% decrease in salmonella instances (1,121 cases in 2011, compared to 1,296 in 2010); therefore, it can be assumed that all cutting boards are routinely swapped out, that food workers are diligent about their hygiene, and that fewer technical errors are being made with raw chicken.  As restaurants strive to, and eventually, earn an A grade, customers become increasingly willing to try a new restaurant.  In the first eight months of the grading system, restaurant sales increased by 9.3%.  After all, it is a common desire among paying customers that restaurants should be "clean."  Despite these positive developments, New York City's restaurant grading system still, arguably, has certain kinks that could be fixed in the future.

In response to Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn's concerns--that two inspectors can grade the same restaurant much differently, and with a large discrepancy in fines, Health Department officials stand by their program while citing its infancy.  Health inspectors are rigorously trained and use a standardized computerized worksheet for each restaurant; meanwhile, as restaurants have acclimated to the health standards, their fines have declined significantly.  In addition, certain critics have cried afoul over frequent inspections and hefty fines, which can be especially crippling for small businesses.  Although these points may be considered in order to perfect the system, it is worth noting that food poisoning does not discriminate.  No matter where you dine, food safety is a paramount concern.

Photo: Mike Licht

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