U.S. News

Restaurants Grading Begins in New York

Glenn Collins |The New York Times
Key Points

NYC's restaurants will get new grading system

Restaurants will receive an 'A', 'B', or 'C'

NYC has budgeted $3.2 million for the plan

Restaurants must post grades prominently

NYC has more than 24,000 restautants

Bob Thomas | Stone | Getty Images

By the end of Wednesday, several restaurant windows in New York are quite likely to display a new attraction alongside the usual menus and reviews: a brilliantly colored placard bearing a letter grade.

But much less visible is the months-long effort by city health officials to prepare for this day — the debut of their controversial new system to rate the cleanliness of the city’s more than 24,000 restaurants with an A, B or C.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygienehas added 23 inspectors to its 157 to conduct annual visits that are expected to rise by more than one-third, to 85,000 from 60,000. The wireless hand-held computers that inspectors use to calculate scores have been upgraded with new hard drives, memory cards and software.

The department’s printing presses have produced 28,000 letter-grade placards and enough new procedural guides for every food establishment in the city. Workshops to help restaurant employees and operators understand the new system — conducted in English, Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Cantonese — have attracted about 2,000 participants.

And starting Wednesday, a new Web site, nyc.gov/health/restaurants, will offer the public up-to-date specifics on each restaurant’s inspection, as well as maps and even street views of the establishments.

“This is the biggest change we’ve implemented in many years,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, commissioner of the health department, which has budgeted $3.2 million for the effort.

Public pressure exerted by the letter grades, Dr. Farley said, will “force restaurants to be diligent about good food-safety practices.”

The city is not the only body gearing up. Two weeks ago, the New York State Restaurant Association, which has fought the grading system since it was first proposed 19 months ago, sent a letter to some 3,500 eating establishments, rallying opposition and raising money for a possible legal challenge, said Robert Bookman, legislative counsel for the group’s New York City chapters.

“We don’t know that the government can compel you to post a sign that expresses an opinion about your business that you do not share,” Mr. Bookman said.

The new ratings will arrive piecemeal. During inspections on Wednesday, only the 8-by-10-inch placards designating an A grade are expected to be posted, since restaurants that receive a lower grade will automatically be inspected again at a later date. If the restaurants are still unhappy with their grade, they have the right to seek an administrative hearing.

Indeed, the first B’s and C’s may not be posted until late August, and rating placards will not reach all restaurants until fall 2011.

The new inspection rules require restaurateurs to post the placards prominently, displaying ratings that were previously available only at the health department or on its Web site. Failure to do so will be punishable by a $1,000 fine, with additional penalties for counterfeiting.

The placards have been knocked out at the rate of 6,000 an hour in the department’s print shop in the basement of 80 Centre Street. The blue A card will correspond to 0 to 13 points under the old system, which imposed numerical penalties for each violation. A green B will designate a less sanitary 13 to 27 points, and an orange C will represent 28 points or more. A black-and-white “grade pending” sign will be posted in restaurants that are appealing their scores.

Public pressure exerted by the letter grades will force restaurants to be diligent about good food-safety practices.
NYC Comm., Health Dept
Dr. Thomas Farley

It is perhaps a measure of the department’s optimism that Nicholas J. Monello, director of printing operations, said he had fulfilled orders for 9,375 A’s — more than the number of B’s and C’s combined. All have been numbered and embossed to prevent counterfeiting.

The department has replaced its paper documents with an electronic system to handle the increased demand that it expects for administrative tribunals, the courts that assess fines and adjudicate disputed inspections, said Daniel Kass, a deputy commissioner. For the first time, online settlements will be permitted, if restaurants acknowledge their violations in exchange for discounted fines.

More than 200 hand-held scoring devices have been rebuilt. Every unit “had to be encrypted, which took from two to three hours for each,” said Robert D. Edman, an assistant health commissioner.

“That’s so that if they are lost,” he continued, “no one can access their information.”

Inspectors have attended four-hour training sessions on letter-grade issues, and health officials have held dozens of educational meetings with restaurant workers.

One morning this month, in the basement auditorium of the Queens Public Library in Flushing, Elliott S. Marcus, an associate health commissioner, answered questions from 70 restaurant workers and owners.

“You have to post the cards on a front window, door or exterior wall within five feet of the main street entrance, from four to six feet in height,” Mr. Marcus said.

Many restaurateurs contend that the new system is confusing, and some have predicted a mass shuttering of businesses rated B and C. Through months of public debate, the department removed many inspection categories from the scoring process, so that restaurants would not receive low grades based on administrative violations like a failure to post informational signs. Some requirements, like those governing food temperature, have been relaxed.

Still, Mr. Bookman, counsel for the restaurant association, said, “We don’t think they went nearly far enough in making changes.”

At the Queens workshop, Anna Nikopoulos, owner of Pete’s Cafe in Bayside, complained that “they are trying to implement too much here in a recession.”

But Sarvjit Singh, owner of the Sohna Punjab restaurant in Bellerose, said he had no worries about maintaining a clean restaurant. “I tell my chef he should be cooking as if he were eating that food,” he said.