Letter Grades for Restaurants: New to NYC, but in L.A., as Common as Nose Jobs and Palm Trees

Tacos Delta is a popular Mexican food stand on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. At lunchtime, the takeaway window at a small, boxy restaurant is mobbed with hungry customers.

Inside, Irma Gonzalez hurriedly takes orders alongside a big, blue letter “A” posted in the window. It means that that Tacos Delta scored the highest possible grade on its last health inspection by the county.

It wasn’t easy. Gonzalez says she and the other staff work hard for that A, constantly checking for health risks like the temperature at which uncooked meat is stored.

“It has to be 40 degrees or below,” Gonzalez says. “Every hour, every two hours you’re checking temperatures, making sure everything it’s at the temp it’s supposed to be.”

Taco joints did not always pay such close attention to the thermometer. Neither, for that matter, did many trendy restaurants.

That changed more than 12 years ago after the local CBS television affiliate aired a hidden camera investigation in several popular restaurant kitchens. The footage showed rotting vegetables, rancid meat, rat droppings, and cockroaches crawling across a kitchen floor. In the video, one worker blew his nose and then touched food without washing his hands. In another clip, a cook smoked a cigarette, letting ash fall on a fish he was preparing for diners.

“It was ugly,” recalls Dr. Jonathan Fielding, L.A. County’s Director of Public Health.

The county responded by adopting one of the most intrusive regulatory systems in the nation. Inspections were beefed up and restaurants were required to display in a prominent location a letter grade based on their inspections: A, B, and the worst, C.

The goal was to get restaurants to clean up their act, or risk losing business. A 2001 survey of diners by the county found that only three percent said they would eat in a C restaurant, only 25 percent in a B restaurant.

It seems to be working.

When the program began in 1998, nearly 40 percent of restaurants received an A. Now, nearly nine out of ten display the blue A in their windows.

Cleaning up in the kitchen also appears to have had an effect on the health of Angelenos.

A study by professors Ginger Zhe Jin and Phillip Leslie found that hospital admissions for serious food-borne illnesses declined 20 percent after the program began. The researchers concluded that the grade cards led restaurants to improve food-handling practices, and gave consumers more information that helped them choose where to eat.

Fielding says the risk of public shaming is the key.

“Instead of, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t fail so we don’t have to close, lets make sure we get an A so that customers want to come here,’” he says. “It changed the psychology.”

It also changed the economics of restaurants.

“I would equate having the loss of letter, like an A to a B, to be somewhere around loss of about 20 percent of my business,” says Chris Patterson, owner of the Spring Street Smokehouse in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

The restaurant currently has an A, and Patterson says he will do everything he can to keep it.

The trouble, he says, is that it is not entirely clear how to do that. Patterson says the rulebook can be overly vague on some points and too specific on others. Many restaurant owners say enforcement can be mysterious, or worse, seemingly arbitrary.

Ben Hallett, a manager at Café Flore, recalls a visit from a man he refers to as the “OCD health inspector.”

“He wouldn’t let carrots and ginger be in the same tub,” Hallett says, “which we thought was pushing it a little too far.”

But Hallett got the message. Carrots and ginger are now kept separately.

The system has won the confidence of many Angelenos like Tricia Gabriel.

“I’m used to it, so I like it. And it is different when I go to other cities and they don’t have it,” says Gabriel while waiting for a chicken burrito on a bench outside Tacos Delta.

When she’s not in her home city, Gabriel says, she doesn’t know how to choose where to eat.

But with the introduction of letter grades in New York City, she’ll soon get her orientation in the five boroughs as well.