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The latest on restaurant letter grades

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

A few short years ago, restaurants in New York City were warily waiting to see how a new letter-grade system, modeled after one put in place in Los Angeles more than a decade earlier that required restaurants to post the results of their health department inspections, was going to play out. As New York continues to fine-tune its program, other cities have created similar systems and earlier this year San Francisco and then Louisville, Ky., took it a step further by including the grades with individual restaurant reviews on Yelp.

New York City chefs and restaurateurs have been vocal about their concerns since the system took effect in July 2010, including some who spoke to Serious Eats in June about the confusion and hardships they’ve experienced. Many said it’s not the system itself but the manner in which it has been enforced that has caused them the most sleepless nights. Inspectors’ knowledge of the foodservice industry varies widely, they said, while the rules don’t always correspond with the reality of food safety and following each of the rules to the letter can sometimes threaten an eatery’s ability to serve quality food in a timely manner.

Also in June, the Daily News reported that the New York City Health Department had levied fines of up to $1,000 on 1,356 restaurants during the previous year for trying to hide their bad inspection grades. While some said the grade posters had been stolen or lost in the mail, at least one operator told the paper he would rather pay the fine than face the fallout from a “C” grade, although inspectors pointed out that the grades are easily accessible online to anyone with a smartphone.

The next month, City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn introduced measures that would make restaurants subject to fewer rules and lower fines and give them more of a chance to contest inspection findings, Crain’s New York reported. “What I want is an A to be an A,” she said, “and an A not to be a revenue generator. Restaurants are working really hard — let’s have that mean something.”

What the letter grades actually mean in a digital age may be up for debate, The Atlantic pointed out last month. When Los Angeles began requiring restaurants to post their grades in 1998, researchers found that revenue at A-rated eateries rose, the publication reported. By 2010, though, New York City eateries didn’t win the same rewards for their top scores, largely because consumers have changed the way they choose restaurants, Harvard Business School professor Michael Luca told the magazine.

In short, people are paying less attention to restaurant walls and more attention to Facebook walls — and online listings and Yelp reviews. That’s where the pilot project that adds the letter grades of San Francisco and Louisville, Ky., eateries to their Yelp reviews comes in. Restaurant inspection grades are already publicly available online in cities with grading systems, but few consumers access them.  Yelp’s experiment pairs the information with the reviews that consumers are already reading as part of their pre-dining research, and The Atlantic article posits that perhaps, if the experiment proves popular, it may spur the creation of a national standard for restaurant grading.

Does your city have a grading system? Share your experiences in the comments.