A's Galore for Restaurants, One Year into New Grade Program

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To some, a class where seven out of ten students get A's might suggest grade inflation. But not to New York City's Health Department. Instead, they say the fact that 69 percent of the city's restaurants have received a score of A since a restaurant grading system was put in place last summer shows what hard work and motivation can do.

"All these restaurants are improving," said Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley. "And that's exactly what we were trying to accomplish when we set up this system in the first place."

Restaurants that receive 13 or fewer violation points during an inspection get an A; those between 14 and 27 points get a B; and those with 28 or more get a C. But those that initially fail to get an A aren't graded at all, until they've been re-inspected, about a month or so after their initial inspection. About 40 percent of those with B-level grades and 30 percent with C-level grades bring on their A game to get the highest mark on re-inspection.
The highest number of violation points are for public health hazards, such as failing to keep food at the right temperature to prevent the growth of bacteria. Those get 7 points each. Critical violations, such as the presence of rodents, carry a minimum of 5 points apiece, and a general violation, such as not properly sanitizing cooking utensils, is assigned at least 2 points.

Commissioner Farley said some 39,000 restaurant owners and staff members have received food control training in the 18 months since the initiative was announced, about 10,000 more than the previous year and a half.

Fines are also way up -- from about $32 million in fiscal 2010 to $42 million in fiscal 2011. Farley downplayed that increase, saying the Department expects it will decrease over time, because officials have started waiving all fines for restaurants that get an A and because they expect an more restaurants will get A's over time.

Andrew Rigie, from the New York State Restaurant Association, said despite the increasing number of A's, the letter grade system should be reevaluated and eliminated. He says customers don't understand what really goes into the scores, and how close a B or C can be to an A.

"Everyone supports running safe restaurants, but small businesses shouldn’t be burdened with millions of dollars worth of fines and the unnecessary fears and anxieties that this system has created," Rigie said. "We feel with more education, training and incentives, we can achieve even greater compliance, but we feel the city should move away from a model that is punitive and shameful."

Rigie said his office gets calls and emails daily from food establishments that feel they've been inspected and scored unfairly.

But Tony Araujo, the owner of Sparks Deli in Queens, which received the first A last year and was re-scored for an A on Friday, twelve months later, said it really doesn't have to be a big deal.

"It's not that difficult to get an A," Araujo said, at a city-sponsored media event. "If you set yourself up with a routine, and you enforce the routine, you're going to be fine."