The Side Dish: Why The Restaurant Grading System Fails To Address The Real Issues

 

When we opened the catering business, there was definitely a learning curve. I had never run a restaurant, let alone worked on the business side of a food service operation, so there were a few times when I felt as though I was trying to catch up. One of those times was certainly the state-required health inspections.

It was unnerving to arrive to the kitchen on a random Tuesday morning only to have a local health inspector waiting at the door. I knew the point was to catch us off-guard, to take a look at the kitchen and surrounding areas during a normal business day. Our chef was always on top of things – bleach bottles, kitchen rags, proper labeling on all food stuffs – but I was always concerned about the random things, the non-food violations that would skew our final grade.

No matter how much I tried to learn about the requirements themselves, it seemed as though it was always reliant on the inspector. Some were lackadaisical in their grading, spending less than ten minutes on a quick walkthrough of the place. Some would set up shop with a laptop, notepads, and a few pens, spending two to three hours taking a look at the kitchen, the office, the bathroom, the loading dock – every inch of the place. Regardless, our ratings were always at the top – 98 to 100.

Except during one visit, where we were graced with a slightly more particular inspector. When his tour was over, I was surprised to see that our final rating was a 95. Confused, I searched through the paperwork only to find that our major violation had been a lack of a trashcan cover on the bathroom trash – a bathroom located two doors and twenty feet from the kitchen, no doubt.

“What does that have to do with the food?” I asked the inspector.

“Nothing,” he answered.

Incensed, I phoned the health department, demanding to receive a full copy of EVERYTHING they review during a standard restaurant inspection. Unsurprisingly, I was passed to three people, and finally left a voicemail message, one that was only returned weeks later with a sheepish, “We don’t actually have a full copy to send you.” When I requested a return inspection once the ‘violation’ had been dealt with, it took nearly three months to get someone back out to the kitchen.

“It will still have to be on a random morning so you can’t prepare,” the health department receptionist told me.

Brilliant.

There’s been much discussion lately regarding the new legalities requiring New York City restaurants to post their inspection ratings. Utilizing a letter-grading system, eateries will have to display their final grades. Of course, many are in an uproar on both sides.

Marc Murphy, chef and owner of Landmarc in New York City, had a number of things to say about the new regulations. Murphy, who is also the vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, talked in great length about the failure of the letter-grading display system, with a number of points that I agree with wholeheartedly. While I completely understand the need to inform customers of health ratings – I certainly think it’s fair to display these ratings predominantly at the restaurant instead of some random page-three of a local newspaper – Murphy points out the inadequacies of the health inspections themselves and how these shortcomings, combined with the new display ruling, will inevitably hurt restaurant business.

“The difference between an A or a B should not be based on leaky faucet, an uncovered light bulb, a small work area in the kitchen or a design concern addressed for the first time well after a restaurant has opened and has passed its pre-opening design inspection…the inspection process is long, complicated and subject to human error and differences of opinion not only between restaurant and inspector, but as we have explained, between different inspectors viewing the same kitchen differently.

Given that the inspection process is not conducted by a computer, but by humans subject to many individual vagaries, and includes many minor items not directly related to food safety, this will not work either. You will simply hurt the reputation of perhaps thousands of excellent restaurants in NYC and damage our standing as a world class tourist attraction.”

I completely agree with Marc’s full statement.Β  I understand the need to inform diners, as well as to keep restaurants and food service operations responsible – and fully accountable for their kitchens – but I believe that it is the city health departments who really, truly need to be re-examined before a thorough grading system can be implemented. Non-food violations should be noted, but not in reflection of a food safety rating.Β  These violations are taken very seriously by both the diner and the restaurant management, and to have such a hap-hazard way of regulating only creates a disservice to the industry, especially when such ratings are enforced.

Needless to say, when we finally closed the business, I was more than happy to stuff that particular health inspection right into that covered bathroom trash can.

~Jennifer Heigl