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The A, B, C’s of Restaurant Letter Grading in NYC

By Andrew Rigie, New York State Restaurant Association

The A, B, C’s of Restaurant Letter Grading in NYC

Anyone who has worked in the restaurant industry knows that if you are not passionate about food, customer service, labor intensive work and serving your community you are probably better off dining at restaurants instead of serving in them. Those who work in the restaurant industry recognize that approaching food preparation with proper safety techniques is in the best interest of their customers and business. An old restaurant industry friend once aptly quipped to me, "no one ever opened a restaurant to get their customers sick." Taking all this into consideration is critical to the manner in which and how successfully the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) inspects and regulates the restaurant industry.

More than one year ago, DOH proposed a new Letter Grade inspection system that would require NYC restaurants to prominently post an A, B or C letter grade in their window based on the results of their most recent DOH inspection. I work for the New York State Restaurant Association (NYSRA), a 75 year old trade association representing New York’s restaurant industry, which had many concerns about the implementation of the proposed Letter Grade inspection system.

NYSRA believes that a restaurant is both safe and sanitary enough to serve the public or it is not, in which case DOH should take the appropriate action. Our concern is that letter grades leave too much room for subjectivity and interpretation on behalf of the inspector and dinning public; therefore, a straight forward pass or fail system would best serve to protect all parties.

The Letter Grade system was publicized in the media, and to some people, NYSRA’s concerns may have been mistakenly perceived as the industry’s attempt to hide unsanitary conditions. This suggestion cannot be further from the truth. In fact, inspection reports have been accessible to the public and NYSRA has provided sanitation education and training to thousands of restaurant employees for approximately 20 years.

As is the case with most government regulation, when it is first proposed it often needs appropriate review and modification; therefore, it often is required to go through a Public Comment period where all interested parties have the opportunity to voice their support and concerns. The Public Comment period provides an opportunity for restaurateurs to advocate, often through trade associations such as NYSRA, to help ensure that proposed regulations will not be unduly burdensome and disrupt the economic viability of the industry.

Based on NYSRA’s advocacy there were many responsible modifications made to the initial Letter Grade inspection system proposal. These modifications will help ensure public safety and protect the viability of the restaurant industry, including, but not limited to:

  • Restaurants will now be entitled to due process and issued a re-inspection if they do not receive an A grade on their initial inspections.
  • Many of the non-food safety and administrative violations will not be included in the calculation of the letter grade. This will reduce undue burdens on restaurants and reduce the potential of the public being misled into not dining at a restaurant due to a non-food safety violation, such as an improperly posted sign.
  • Several violations were clarified, changed and/or reworded so they better address food safety, leaving less room for subjectivity on the part of the inspector.
Even with all of these critical changes there are still several concerns related to the Letter Grade inspection system:
  • Why are Mobile Food Vendors who are exposed to the elements of NYC streets exempt from posting Letter Grades?
  • The DOH inspects public school and hospital cafeterias but has exempted them from posting Letter Grades. If Letter Grades are intended to protect the public why are NYC’s youth and sick not protected by this system?
  • There may still be violations not related to food safety that are included in the calculation of Letter Grades.
  • The Health Department deems a C graded restaurant safe to serve food to the public. So why give a safe & sanitary restaurant a scarlet letter?
What are the next steps?

The New York State Restaurant Association is working with experts from diverse fields to research areas of food safety / public health and the economic and operational viability of New York City’s restaurant industry as it relates to the DOH and other regulatory agencies.

What can you do to enhance New York City’s restaurant industry and protect public health?

Contact the New York State Restaurant Association and enroll in our 2 ½ day Food Protection Certification course and view our “Resource” page which includes information and links to important DOH information:

Also, check back for NYSRA’s soon to be offered two hour food sanitation training course.

As NYSRA continues to conduct this vital work we will use it to develop a more cooperative, strategic and productive relationship between the restaurant industry and DOH that will ensure New York City remains among the safest Culinary Mecca’s in the world!

About Andrew Rigie

Andrew Rigie is the Director of Operations of the New York State Restaurant Association (Greater NYC Chapters). NYSRA is a not-for-profit trade association representing the restaurant industry in New York State.

In addition to his operational duties, he serves on multiple committees relating to the restaurant, foodservice and nightlife industries. He is also the author of a several columns, which are featured in industry publications.

Andrew Rigie is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education, New York, NY.

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