Restaurant Letter Grades: Why the ABCs Are Bad for Business in the Five Boroughs

B is the new A, as in scarlet letter, thanks to the newish New York City health department letter grades.

The New York City health department’s letter-grade system for restaurants is old news, but not really. Instituted a year ago, the consequences of letter grades are being felt by restaurateurs at every level, from high-end fine dining to casual eateries. I’ve worked in many restaurants and earned a HACCP certification during my stint at culinary school, so I have a good understanding of how easy it is for a clean restaurant to receive an undesirable grade. Clearly, though, not every diner does — and it’s bad for business.

I recently spoke with Andrew Rigie, Executive Vice President of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association, in the hopes that he could shed some light on the situation.

Andrew, why has something that seems so simple turned out to be such a nightmare to navigate, for both diners and restaurateurs?

The biggest issue is that the letter grade system seems straightforward, yet it is based on a complex health code and the letter grade system is intellectually incoherent.

How so?

People feel that they understand what the letter grades really are. But, when I went to school, 90-100 percent on a test was an A, 80-90 percent was a B, and so on. What diners need to understand is that there are more than 1,000 points that a restaurant can accrue during an inspection, and it only takes 14 points to get a B and 28 points to get a C. If you use educational scoring here, 28 points is actually more than a 96%, which was an A+ when I went to school.

In reality, then, a C really *isn’t* the bad or dangerous grade some diners perceive it to be?

It’s important to recognize that a C-graded restaurant is deemed safe and sanitary enough to serve the public. If the restaurant was not safe to serve the public, the health department would shut it down.

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