It’s no secret that New York City chefs and restaurateurs aren’t down with the Department of Health’s letter grading system. Well, neither apparently are Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Health Committee chair Maria del Carmen Arroyo. They announced yesterday the launch of a comprehensive restaurant inspection survey, which is also being backed by the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA). The results of the survey will be discussed in a February hearing. “By nature [a restaurant] inspection is subjective,” explains NYSRA executive vice president Andrew Rigie. “You have subjective inspectors, and the problem with letter grades is that they represent a snapshot in time. Yet a letter grade hangs in the window for long time.” To that end, the NYSRA is urging restaurateurs to take part in the survey — which can be accessed here — to voice their own complaints with the grading system.
“It’s been 18 months since the inspection system was introduced,” says Rigie. “The Restaurant Association had a lot of concerns with the system being introduced. Due to our advocacy, there were some changes but we thought some additional changes should be made.”
The letter grading system currently works by having inspectors give restaurants grades based on a points violation system. Zero to 13 points warrants an A rating, 14 to 27 a B, and above 28 a C. After the initial inspection, if a restaurant has more than 14 points, it’s given a court date and associated fines, and it also triggers a mandatory re-inspection that will then determine the final letter grade.
“We propose, let the initial inspection commence,” says Rigie. “But if you get more than 14 points, don’t issue a new inspection until the first is adjudicated.” The reason for this is that when cases go to court, judges will often dismiss some of the points, which may result in a better letter grading.
“The goal is that everyone wants high safety standards,” he observes. “But we want to engage in more food safety training and move away from letter grades.” He notes that it’s not just the restaurants with B and C ratings that want change, but even those which are burdened by the work of maintaining an A. “My real job title should be restaurateur therapist. I get calls from restaurateurs all the time. [The letter grading system] is a game of cat and mouse, and no matter what [the restaurateurs] do, the inspector will find a new violation.”