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.

How are businesses coping with anything less than an A, then?

I’d say the general consensus is that people are unhappy with the letter-grade system as a whole. Most people are not happy if they get a B or a C. Restaurateurs spend an enormous amount of time and resources on ensuring food safety and a B or C grade portrays a negative image to the public and implies that restaurants don’t care, which is not the truth. No one ever opened a restaurant to get customers sick. Bad food safety practices are bad for business, and no restaurateur wants that especially in New York City’s competitive market.

Don’t other cities have letter-grade systems that seem to be working out better than New York City’s?

Los Angeles introduced letter grades more than 12 years ago, but their system is based on a 100-point system, so it’s more intuitive. Also, the way the health code is written and the way the points accrue are different, so you can’t compare them.

So, give me an overview of how it works.

Restaurants have an initial inspection. If they get 13 points or fewer, they receive an A right there and won’t be reinspected for another year or so. 14 or more points require a reinspection and that reinspection will determine a restaurant’s grade. The reinspection is supposed to happen at least a week later, but there’s a backlog now and some folks are waiting on pins and needles for 2 months. Upon that reinspection, they’ll be given the A right there, or if they get 14 or more points, they’ll have a tribunal hearing and that hearing will determine the grade.

Is that when we see the grade pending signs?

Exactly. And, grade pending is also very ambiguous. Most diners don’t know what that means! Meanwhile, the restaurant is safe and if it wasn’t safe, the restaurant would be closed down.

Consequently, are restaurants that receive lower grades inspected more frequently?

If a restaurant earns an A upon initial inspection, they’ll have another reinspection in about a year. If the A is a result of adjudication, it will be reinspected within 5-7 months. If a restaurant scores between 14-28 points, reinspection comes within 5-7 months. Any restaurants earning 28 or more points can expect the next initial inspection within 3-5 months.

So restaurants that earn a C have no recourse until the next inspection?

They just have to live with that C until then. A letter grade is a scarlet letter. People will remember the C — even if they get an A in the future.

I think when the general public hears or sees that a restaurant received a lower grade, they are imagining a highly unsanitary kitchen overrun with creatures. Yet, violations can be highly innocuous things like a dented can in your walk-in that someone just knocked over or a reach-in refrigerator that is a single degree too warm.

Exactly! There are dozens of types of violations. Beyond that, violations have five condition levels reflecting the severity of the alleged violation, which are each assigned a different amount of points, which add up to calculate the letter grade. What was the violation that made the difference between the A and B? There are many different types of violations that people may not consider an imminent health threat. If there are 30 people in a kitchen and one isn’t wearing a hairnet that can be the difference between a B and a C.

What people should also understand is that inspections are subjective, and many violations that are issued are corrected right on the spot. When the inspector walks out the door, those violations no longer exist — yet the letter grade lives on for months. That’s why a letter grade is misleading to the public.

What’s your advice to diners who see that a restaurant they frequent or would like to try has received a B or a C?

If there’s a neighborhood restaurant that has a B or a C, and it concerns you, you might try talking to the owner. He or she may welcome the opportunity to talk to a patron about the complexity of the system and why they were given the grade, and let the diner make the decision. If I told you that my manager who has his food-safety certification ran around the corner to grab an extra gallon of milk just before the inspector showed up and I got 10 points for him not being on premise, plus two dented cans and a little water under the dishwasher is why I have a B, you would still eat there. To put it into perspective, if you have a cat at a home, your home kitchen probably gets a C.

What is the New York State Restaurant Association’s New York City chapter doing to help restaurateurs stay on the right side of the labyrinth-like system while staying in business?

For our restaurant members, we provide consulting and certification training. And, over the past year, we’ve engaged the Department of Health, elected officials, and other notables to try to advocate for a more fair and equitable letter-grade system that protects public safety but also protects restaurants from a business standpoint.

We’re working to change the way inspections are conducted — we’re working for a more educational process. If something isn’t an imminent public health threat, we’d ask for inspectors to tell restaurateurs and restaurant workers why it’s a violation and show them how to correct it, instead of just embarrassing an establishment with a B or C grade.