Restaurateurs Worry: Will Health Scores Go Viral?

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Last week when the Health Department awarded its first letter grade, it also unveiled a new website that lets you see health-code violations by zip code, cuisine type, borough, and score range. Its a handy device for germophobes by searching New Yorks zip code, we were able to determine that the space that until recently housed Bouley Upstairs and Bouley Bakery and Market (they were replaced by a new takeout operation, Bouley Studio, last month) received 43 demerit points back in June. Thats well above the 28 or more points that, if the restaurant had been inspected today, would earn it a C (though it should be noted that before theyre smacked with a letter grade, restaurant owners are granted a follow-up inspection and, if they request it, a hearing).

Among the violations cited on the departments website: Bouleys lightbulbs werent shatterproof, and his milk was undated. Under the old system, restaurants were docked points for such violations, but as weve noted, letter grades arent the only recent change to the health code. Starting late last month, restaurants were no longer docked points for keeping undated milk around, something now deemed not sufficiently related to food safety. Another big change: Whereas presence of flying insects was once a year-round violation, the department now only docks points if the flies are spotted between November 1 to March 1, since at other times, they could be the result of an open window. (Indeed the last time Bouley ran afoul of the health department, in 2009, he blamed his fly infestation on parents pushing strollers into the market. He said he was working to fix the problem.)

All of this means that of the 6,000 restaurants said to be in the C range before letter grades went into effect, some of them might actually have been in the B range under the new rules. At least one restaurateur (Jeremy Merrin of Havana Central) tells the Times today that he isnt happy that the old, possibly misleading scores are still on the departments website a website that is now much easier to access thanks to a new widget that lets people install the search engine on any web page (the Times reports that Zagat and Opentable are thinking of incorporating the scores into their listings).

And this isnt the only problem with the new website some immigrant restaurant owners worry that theyll be hit hardest by letter grades, and indeed our search of the site by cuisine type revealed that Chinese and Latin American restaurants seemed to receive a disproportionate number of demerits. It also revealed that many restaurants were blatantly miscategorized e.g. Ecuadorian, French, Brazilian, and Ethiopian restaurants were all labeled as American.

All of this goes to show that the Health Department is very much capable of human error, something restaurateurs have been complaining about all along. Back when Katzs had a relatively clean record, owner Alan Dell at first spoke in favor of the letter grades, but after receiving 47 demerits on a recent inspection, he told Grub Street that hed prefer the old system. Sometimes you get a rude disgusting person, Dell said of health inspectors, and sometimes you get a nice, normal person. Marc Murphy echoed the sentiment in an e-mail he sent us: If this is, as the DOH says, a way of informing the public about restaurant cleanliness, then will it take the human error factor into consideration?

Its no wonder that restaurant owners are nervous about the fact that health inspection scores, once buried on a webpage that no one except blogs like this one bothered visiting, are now threatening to go viral. Restaurants like Insieme and Monkey Bar (which received failing scores owing to what they told Grub Street were paperwork issues) would tell you to take the grades with a grain of salt but then again the DOH doesnt much like salt, either.

Restaurants Call Health Web Site Unfair [NYT]