Are those big blue A’s in windowpanes across New York the first thing you look for when deciding where to eat out? Do you see a B or a C and shake your head with pity for the owner of that restaurant? Many people do, but it turns out, we’ve got it all wrong. Letter grading of restaurants by the Health Department can be as arbitrary as the inspector assigned to evaluate a place. That’s why Christine Quinn announced during a photo op today a few legislative proposals to get the city to rein in its enforcement of the letter grades the Health Department hands out to restaurants.
In response to complaints of frivolous grading on the part of the department’s inspectors, the city council is going to take up debate on legislation to reduce fines and potential violations for owners.
Though there is the potential for underregulation, don’t buy stock in Immodium just yet. The new legislation is not about relaxing grading standards. They’re more about increasing transparency and accountability of the inspectors handing out the grades. The city is making these new allowances because restaurant owners are often blindsided by draconian safety rules. Among the new regulations will be an opportunity for eateries and restaurants to get a cheap or free consultation–depending on the age of the restaurant–ahead of a formal, grade-bearing inspection.
One odd contradiction that an initial report of the new legislation points out: Christine Quinn just rolled out a proposal to make options on kids’ menus more healthful, unleashing a wave of the hospitality industry’s ire. But the contradiction resolves slightly when we think about the two needs Quinn is trying to meet with each law, consummate politician that she is.
One is ostensibly to position herself as heir apparent to Mayor “no soda for you” Bloomberg (and possibly to mend some fences after her part in overriding some of his vetoes). The other is to throw a bone to one of the city’s largest industries, which been clamoring for a change like this since the grading program kicked off three years ago. Whether or not either proposal makes it past the council is uncertain, nor how the Health Department feels about being publicly chastised. But if both sets of proposal survive, that’ll be one hell of a political maneuver.