What it Means When Restaurant Grades Go Digital
A New York City Department of Health inspector walks into a full restaurant during the dinner rush. This is not the opening of a joke but a reality for many restaurant owners. The inspections––difficult enough on their own, according to many in the industry––are now accompanied by results that are easily accessible to the public.
In the summer of 2010 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene began requiring food service establishments to post letter grades corresponding to their sanitary inspection scores. These letter grades were intended to keep the public aware of health issues. But many restaurant owners and others in the industry say they add to confusion; before they can help customers the system must become less subjective. Now these inspections have the ability to gain a wider audience. Yelp, a review site, is rolling out inspection results to correspond with the site's restaurant reviews, and other websites are making the inspections more accessible to potential patrons through apps and interactives.
"I don't think people would go out of their way to check the NYHD (New York Health Department) website," said Colin Camac, who oversees the front of house operations for the Fatty Crew Hospitality Group. But "it being on Yelp is more in your face. The public definitely looks down on restaurants that are not sporting an 'A' without really understanding how easy it is to rack up 13 points [the amount needed to downgrade an inspection to a 'B'] on non critical violations."
Camac and others in the industry stress that any dissatisfaction they have to the inspections or their new digital accessibility isn't about keeping sanitary secrets, rather it stems from frustration with the system at large.
"People are entitled to see all public info, but at the same time, the public isn't seeing a fair assessment of a restaurant's hygiene based on one inspection," said Michael Sinensky, co-founder of the FunBars restaurants group, which includes the Village Pourhouse bars and Hudson Terrace.
"Information is never a bad thing," said Camac. "The biggest problem is that the public has no way of really understanding what an 'A,' 'B,' or 'C' means. The difference between and 'A' or 'B' is so slight. Every restaurant in the city can get either one of those grades on the same day by two different inspectors."
The topic of subjectivity comes up a lot when discussing restaurant inspections with industry folks.
"The health inspection – the grading, the system, the inspectors—it's not a consistent inspection," said Marco Chirico, the chef and owner at Enoteca On Court and Marco Polo Ristorante, both in Brooklyn. "For example you have one inspector come in one day and he might find a hole in the ceiling too big and has to be covered up. That will be a fine. And the inspector before who came in and saw that said it was ok."
When a customer looks at a Yelp review or an app they don't "know the story behind the inspector," said Chirico.
Beyond miscommunication and inconsistency, some in the restaurant industry can feel victimized by the system. There's a "guilty unless proven innocent" sentiment to the system, says Ben Conniff, the vice president of the Luke's Lobster chain of restaurants. Conniff has fought the results of inspections in the past and had violations overturned. It's unclear how quickly sites like Yelp would be able to update their information to reflect the most current inspection results.
A different system, one with clear and cohesive rules might be able to "provide useful information to patrons as they make their dining decisions," said Conniff.
But according to many in the business, as the system stands now this is not the case, and making it more accessible to customers through apps and websites could further compound problems.
"We're here for our customers," said Chirico. "If the letter grading makes our customers happy, that's ok. But it's an unfair system, and a lot of our customers don't know about it."
Image provided by: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene
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