Practice Makes Perfect: Repeat Inspections Let Most City Restaurants Earn A’s

This story was published FEBRUARY 21, 2012, in City and State newspaper.

A year and a half into New York City’s experiment in giving restaurants letter grades for their health inspections, the Health Department is pleased to report that 77 percent of restaurants now boast a shiny blue A in their front window.

But some of those restaurants only earned their A’s after appealing earlier inspections that would have garnered B’s or C’s.

In fact, the average restaurant inspection results in a score that would earn a solid B grade, a City & State review of half a million Health Department records shows—and the average restaurant score is getting worse.

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Restaurant advocates say the worsening scores indicate city inspectors are grading more strictly. Indeed, annual revenue from fines grew by almost $10 million between 2010 and 2011, as restaurants were inspected more frequently.

“It’s arbitrary,” said Rob Bookman, counsel for the New York Nightlife Association. “It has been since they developed the point system years ago, and the letter grades add insult to injury.”

The Health Department would not comment on City & State’s findings because it does not calculate average scores, said spokeswoman Chanel Caraway, but she said the department’s only focus is public health.

“The overarching goal of the restaurant letter-grading system is transparency and food safety, not revenue or fines,” she said. “It is not meant to be punitive.”

When Health Department inspectors visit a city restaurant, they mark points for all manner of violations—from two points for a minor problem like not properly sanitizing utensils, to up to 10 points for public health hazards like raw sewage in the kitchen.

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The more points a restaurant gets, the worse its grade. Anything up to 13 points earns an A, 14 to 27 points a B, and 28 points and above, a C—that is, unless inspectors order an immediate shutdown.

Yet a restaurant with a score of 14 or above doesn’t have to post a B or C right away. Instead they post a “grade pending” sign while they try to clean up their act and prepare for an automatic reinspection—and only that reinspection is graded.

It’s a popular option: More than 12 percent of graded inspections generate “grade pending” signs, City & State found. Many restaurants remedy their violations while they appeal the initial grade, so when they finally do post a letter, it’s an A.

While the Health Department does not report an average score for the city, it posted the entire set of inspection results on the website. City & State downloaded the results and calculated the average for every eight-day period since August 2010.

In that period, the average score has been solidly in the B range—from a low of 16.7 points in January 2011 to a high of 22.6 in April. Yet the data show that the average score has slowly risen over the past 18 months.

That conclusion resonates with many restaurant owners and their advocates, who say the letter-grade system is bilking small businesses out of thousands of dollars in fines, with little impact on health.

“The letter-grade system increased fines even for restaurants that receive A’s,” said Andrew Rigie of the New York State Restaurant Association. “It also increased the frequency of inspections, so restaurants aren’t only paying more in fines but also spending more on sanitation consultants and on attorneys to represent them.”

The Health Department said it expects to see revenue from fines “plateau and decline” as restaurants improve their practices. It said two-thirds of all fines are levied against the worst-performing 20 percent of restaurants, while the top 60 percent of restaurants pay only 8 percent of the fines.

In response to persistent complaints about the process, the City Council last month solicited feedback from restaurateurs through an online questionnaire that collected over 1,000 surveys.

“Any initiative—especially 18 months after establishment—calls for scrutiny,” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Many of Quinn’s colleagues agree. “It seems like the main motivation of the city is to make money by fining restaurants rather than working with them to ensure consumer safety,” Brooklyn Councilman David Greenfield said at a town hall meeting this month.

The Health Department, however, has already dismissed the Council’s actions.

“Considering that the survey has no method of confirming that a participant is actually a restaurant, nor does it ensure that an entrant fills out only one submission, the results—good or bad—will have negligible value,” Caraway said.

About Eliza Ronalds-Hannon