The Health Department’s Letter Grading System Spells Trouble for NYC Restaurants

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On July 1st, 50% to 70% of the cities relevant restaurants will start to receive a health department grade which could be perceived by the public as failing. The public has a right to know which restaurants are clean and functioning properly, but the new letter grade system does little to improve conditions, and may prove disastrous to many extremely well run establishments. It will do little to accurately inform the public of restaurant conditions. This seems to be a typical Bloomberg administration plan: take an idea, half bake it, ignore the consequences on the street level, where the rest of us live, and stubbornly dismiss any evidence that goes against their grain. The concept of compelling restaurants to be cleaner, safer, and better is fantastic, but the system being put in place will most likely mislead and put people out of work. I caught up with Andrew Reggio, the director of operations of the New York Restaurant Association, and got the details.

The soon-to-implemented plan is said to be based on the highly successful Los Angeles letter grade system. Andrew pointed out the “drastic differences” between the LA scoring system and the NYC one:

“The LA system is based on 100 points and is traditional in the sense that 90% = A, 80% = B, 70% = C. In NYC there are more than 1000 points a restaurant can receive from violations. In NYC, 0-13 points = A, 14-27 points = B and 28+ = C (basically a failing grade). It will be substantially easier to fail in NYC. Percentage wise, a restaurant would need to score between 98.7 – 100% to receive an A grade, 97.3 – 98.6% to receive a B and a 97.2% or less to receive a C. Furthermore, in NYC there are more than 40 violations that carry between 10-28 points. Compared to LA where no violation carries more than 6 points.”

In my school days, if I got a 97.2 percent on a test that meant I also got two ice cream cones and a ‘stay-up-late’ pass so I could watch the Tonight Show. Under this system, it’s estimated that only 30% of our restaurants will get an A, and the public may perceive that anything less than an A is a failure. Robert Bookman, of the New York Nightlife Association, pointed out that under the LA system “82% of NYC restaurants would get an A.” In NYC, getting a “failing” grade of B or a C is monumentally easy. It’s so easy that it’s laughable—if it weren’t for the thousands who will be hurt. Restaurants could get points off for just a few burnt out light bulbs (2-5 points), some dented cans (1 point for each). A restaurant is just a leaky faucet away from a failing letter grade. A dishwasher will have to leave a food prep area to have a drink of water. That hot bartender with long golden locks of hair better buy a hairnet. Andrew Reggio sent me this to break down the system further:

“NYSRA believes that a restaurant should either pass or fail an inspection: A restaurant is either sanitary enough to serve the public or it is not. A letter grade is nothing more than a snapshot in time. It represents a sanitary condition at a specific point in time and not the current conditions, therefore it is misleading to the public and is a scarlet letter for the restaurant. We desire a cooperative relationship with the health department to ensure public safety and not a complex system that will jeopardize the livelihood of restaurants, mislead the public, and give a black eye to the restaurant capital of the world.

The current point system should not be manipulated to accommodate letter grades, which is something that it was never intended to do. Additionally, the Health Department continues to state that when LA adopted letter grades they saw an increase of compliance. However, they neglect to mention that when LA adopted their letter grade system, they also began to require mandatory food sanitation training, something that NYC has required for many years. It’s hard to argue that LA’s requirement of food sanitation training did not have a greater impact on the increase of compliance than did the implementation of letter grades.”

Paul Seres of the New York Nightlife Association spoke to me about the negative impact this system will have on bars and clubs that serve little or no food. He sent me his testimony from the public hearing and I provide you with its core:

“I’m here today to ask that you exempt bars, lounges and nightclubs that serve little to no food from the letter grading policy that you have passed. If schools, hospitals and prisons can be exempt, so too can bars, taverns, lounges, and nightclubs. There is no logical explanation for an establishment that serves only beverages or the majority of their service is beverages, that they post a letter grade when annual inspections are rare. We would be forced to have a letter grade long after additional inspectors could revisit our venues. If the purpose of letter grading is to help prevent food born illness, then I believe it is safe to say that Bars, Nightclubs, and Lounges who serve little to no food, are not environments where food born illness exist in great numbers.”

Below is a chart that highlights the differences between the LA Letter Grading System and ours. image