grading restaurants on a curve news

| 29 Jul 2015 | 11:30

Are 95% of New York City’s restaurants really squeaky clean?

The Department of Health recently touted that fact that 95% of the 24,000 restaurants in the city now receive an A inspection grade, up from 38% four years ago.

While health department officials credit more frequent inspections and better communication for the higher marks, restaurateurs, inspection consultants -- and even some diners -- aren’t so convinced.

“I think the numbers are pretty skewed,” said Adolfo Velasquez, whose NYC Grade Fixers is part of a cottage industry that helps restaurants navigate the health department’s inspection process through mock run-throughs administrative hearings.

Velasquez and others say the high overall grades in the city may have less to do with the quality of food, and more to do with restaurants’ success in court appealing their grades.

Before the letter grades, restaurants were inspected once per year, twice if the initial inspection was lower than an A. Today, consultants are saying while the price per fine has remained the same, health inspectors are doling out fines more frequently. The first inspection of the year, two if a restaurant receives less than an A initially, determines a restaurant’s grade for the entire year.

Consultants and restaurants believe additional visits are made simply to cash in on minor food safety violations.

“It’s not that restaurants were ever that bad and needed improvement,” said Mark Nealon, president and founder of S.A.F.E Restaurant Consulting. “If health inspectors are coming more than twice a year they’re making more money.”

Restaurants receive an A or a warning rather than a B or C on their first inspection of the year. If a restaurant does not earn an A during the second visit, restaurant owners can choose to post their grade and pay the fines, or a grade pending card until heard by the Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings Health Tribunal.

Consultants say those so-called OATH hearings have become the avenue used by restaurants to upgrade their grades. “Now everybody says, ‘I don’t care what happens as long as you can get me the A in court,’” Nealon said.

When graded, a restaurant receives a certain amount of points for each health code violation. An A inspection grade ranges from 0 to 13 points. A score of 14 to 27 points results in a B and 28 or more points earns a C. If a restaurant receives an A inspection grade, it does not have to pay a fine for any violations.

More severe violations, which threaten human health, such as a rat infestation, receive higher points.

Michael Forrest, an owner of Italian restaurant Galli, with locations in the Lower East Side and Soho, said customers shouldn’t assume a restaurant with an A is cleaner than restaurants with Bs or Cs. “The letter grade in itself doesn’t really tell the full picture, it’s a way of simplifying it,” he said. “As an owner I see that the system has flaws, and some points you can receive have nothing to do with food quality,” Forrest said,

Violations such as dishwashers without a hairnet, ice building up on the ice machine or shipment boxes on the floor are not considered immediate health hazards. However, minor violations can add up resulting in a B or C inspection grade.

Romel Tovar, assistant to the owner of Grandaisy Bakery, said the Upper West side establishment received points when the only staff member with a food handling certificate was absent on the day of inspection. “That’s a 10-point violation automatically, so it’s kind of hard to come back from that and score under 13,” said Tovar. Since 2014, about 80% of Grandaisy Bakery employees take the free online food handler’s class to avoid a repeat violation. The bakery pays for each test and staff members are given a $200 bonus for completing the course. “It’s been a useful lesson that we learned,” said Tovar.

On the other hand, some restaurants with major health code violations can receive As. “A place that has two rats sitting on a cutting board in the kitchen, which is a 10-point violation, gets an A,” said Nealon. “The place across the street that has cracked floor tiles, a dripping air-conditioning unit and a missing thermometer gets a B. So which one would you rather go to, the place with an A on it or a B?” he said.

Max Falkowtiz, senior features editor for Serious Eats, said he never considers restaurant inspection grades when writing a review of a restaurant. “Most home kitchens would get points knocked off on a DOH health inspection. Most homes are not charging people for their food, but if you’re comfortable eating out of your own kitchen the risks of eating out in the city are minimal to marginal,” he said.

Falkowitz, who eats in restaurants more than he eats at home, said the DOH rules are extremely cautious and outdated.

“There are a lot of kitchens right now that are experimenting with fermented and aged foods as well as these very long established traditions and techniques of preparing foods that have been safe for hundreds and thousands of years,” said Falkowitz. “But because they don’t fall within the strict references of what the DOH protocols are, DOH employees have a hard time keeping up with restaurants,” he said.