It’s now been an entire year since the Department of Health implemented its restaurant letter-grading system. The Wall Street Journal has marked the momentous occasion by reporting that 90 percent of the city’s approximately 24,000 establishments have been inspected since last July, and most of them have gotten an A.
But! The paper’s analysis of the grades revealed that many of these restaurants were within one or two points of being demoted to a B: 2,304 restaurants scored 12 points, 1,656 restaurants scored 13 points, but 287 restaurants earned 14 points. And many B restaurants were skirting the edge of a C.
One detail the story doesn’t address, though, is what these crucial points were for, which illustrates one of the biggest problems with the restaurant grading system: When the average customer sees a B hanging in a window, it’s likely that they won’t bother to go to the DOH website to understand why.
A B or a C does not mean a restaurant is a filthy, cockroach-ridden pit of ineptitude. We know one chef who got a violation for leaving a piece of Parmesan cheese at room temperature — which, as any cheesemonger will tell you, is the temperature at which it should be held.
Likewise, another chef got a point after an inspector took temperature readings of cut vegetables that were on the line, waiting to be cooked, and found, surprisingly enough, that they were in the “danger zone” above 41 degrees Fahrenheit. The same chef also racked up seven points for an open rat bait station that a previous tenant had left in the basement — which was not being used for food storage.
Yet another restaurant and bar owner recently told us about being fined for a stack of dirty dishes that his staff hadn’t had time to wash during the dinner rush. The visiting inspector gave him two days to install “sufficient dishwashing facilities.” The owner installed two sinks behind his bar, only to have the next inspector tell him the sinks were unnecessary.
Details like this don’t register for most restaurant patrons, but they do for restaurant owners who have to deal with the often erroneous perception that their establishments are disgusting. That’s on top of dealing with the fines, which can be a significant burden on smaller businesses.
Meanwhile, big chains like McDonald’s routinely receive A grades (less than 10 percent of the city’s 234 locations received a lower grade). Why? Think about it: Their workers barely handle food, let alone cook it. First the food comes out a freezer, then it goes into a microwave, and then it goes to the customer. Never mind that its content is inherently more threatening to the health of McDonald’s patrons than any piece of room-temperature Parmesan cheese could ever be.
The system is set up to reward big businesses that don’t actually “cook” anything — for another example, take a look at the DOH inspection reports for the city’s 398 Subway locations, the vast majority of which have an A. Likewise, all but 10 of our 238 Starbucks locations have A’s — despite having the most famously nasty bathrooms New York has ever seen.
Although it’s laudable that the city is trying to protect the health of its citizens and penalize some truly revolting establishments, one can’t help but feel that it would behoove everybody involved if its inspectors actually understood food and cooking, and the realities of most restaurant kitchens. But that seems unlikely. As anyone who’s ever argued with a meter cop over a parking ticket will attest, common sense is no match for the city’s love of a dependable source of revenue.
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 28, 2011