Many of us have experienced sitting in a restaurant and seeing a rodent run across the floor (happened to me in a Washington eatery) or a roach on the wall (a Northern Virginia diner.) Not good.
Wouldn't it be great if there were some warning beforehand that the eatery you were about to enter had vermin or cleanliness issues in places you couldn't see, like kitchens or storerooms?
That's the idea behind a new grading system New York City will start implementing this summer. Each of the city's 24,000 restaurants, from the poshest to the neighborhood hole in the wall will receive a letter grade, with A being the highest, which it will have to prominently display in its window.
According to a NYC Board of Health press release:
Letter grades will make the inspection process more transparent, giving every potential customer instant access to important information. At the same time, the risk-based inspection schedules will focus City resources on restaurants that warrant the most scrutiny. The Health Department plans to enact the new system in July.
"New York City restaurants are among the world's best, and these simple reforms will make them even better," said Dr. Thomas Farley, New York City Health Commissioner. "Giving consumers more information will help make our restaurants safer and cleaner. The grade in the window will give you a sense of how clean the kitchen is — and it will give every restaurant operator an incentive to maintain safe, sanitary conditions."
Each year the Health Department inspects 24,000 restaurants to monitor their compliance with the city's health code, and most establishments maintain good or excellent conditions. Restaurants are fined for health code violations, but public posting of letter grades provides a stronger incentive to maintain the best sanitary conditions.
Predictably, the new grading system isn't getting rave reviews from restaurateurs and the organizations that represent them. From the AP:
Some restaurant owners and industry officials have called the system gimmicky and unfair.
"They're doing a disservice to the public," said Marc Murphy, a vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association and the owner and chef at the Manhattan restaurants Landmarc and Ditch Plains.
He said the letter grading system will only serve to embarrass restaurateurs without giving the public a true picture of the establishment's cleanliness.
Critics charge that grades could change from week to week, depending on a city inspector's whims, and that even a grade of B could be fatal to some fine dining establishments.
"Two flies can get you cited for a rodent violation," Murphy said. He predicted that the new system "will hurt our reputation as the restaurant capital of the world."
But there are some restaurateurs who see the new grading system as giving them a competitive advantage:
More from the AP:
But celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, owner of Craft and other restaurants, said the system was a good idea.
"I think anything that is going encourage people to clean up their act and protect the public is a good thing overall," he said.
The new system actually doesn't seem as onerous as some customers might wish. According to the NYC Board of Health, it's not like restaurants that don't get an A will immediately have to put a lower grade in their window.
More from the NYC Board of Health:
Under the new plan, a restaurant receiving an A grade will post it at the end of the inspection. If the grade is lower than an A, the restaurant will not have to post a grade until it has a chance to improve its sanitary conditions. The Health Department will return within a month to conduct a second inspection. Restaurant operators who contest their assigned grades will be able to post "grade pending" signs until they have had an opportunity to be heard at the Department's Administrative Tribunal.
Many customers will likely see that as a rather lenient approach that could allow restaurants with hygiene problems to not immediately clean up their act. Still, having some information in the window is better than not.