Consider two restaurants. Both serve the same kind of food, both have friendly staff and are in an excellent location. But one is full of customers and the other nearly always empty. Why? The answer to this riddle is their letter grade: one has an A, and the other a B.
Over the years, restaurant letter grades have been adopted at both the state and local level. These scores, which correspond to the grading system we all remember from school, must be displayed prominently near the entrance. The goal is to improve cleanliness by better informing the public, thereby forcing restaurants to change their ways or risk going out of business.
Restaurant letter grades are hardly a new phenomenon. Records show in 1949 an A-B-C system was implemented in Pittsburgh after photographs of dirty kitchens were splashed across the pages of the Pittsburgh Post; an earlier analysis showed some 80% of the city’s restaurants were unsanitary. According to a news article, by 1950 110 cities had implemented similar systems.
Modern restaurant grading was reborn in Los Angeles. In November 1997, an expose called Behind the Kitchen Door aired on KCBS-TV. Using hidden cameras, the report showed vermin infested kitchens, workers not washing their hands, and other disgusting violations that caused immediate outrage and action. The next month, the city council overwhelmingly approved the new public grades.
Grades are issued on a 0-100 scale. Rodent infestation takes off six points, raw chicken near veggies four points, and cockroaches or unwiped surfaces one apiece. Restaurants that have 90-100 get an A, 80-89 a B, 70-79 a C. After the initial unannounced inspection, there is a follow-up with possible fines or a downgrading if the restaurant slips from an A or doesn’t improve.
The new system made it easier for the public to be aware of the sanitary conditions, and the display would be like a scarlet letter, shaming the low-graded restaurant into making improvements.
A study by Stanford researchers of the Los Angeles system just before and after implementation seems to confirm this – restaurants that received an A rating saw a revenue increase of 5.7%, while B restaurants received only a 1% bump; C-graded restaurants decreased by 1%. Outbreaks of foodborne illness around Los Angeles also appeared to decline.
In 2008, the nonprofit food safety watchgroup Center for Science in the Public Interest excoriated the nation’s eating establishments for continued poor sanitary conditions. They published a report showing that of the 539 restaurants inspected in 20 cities, two-thirds had serious health violations. The organization implored state and local governments to adopt Los Angeles’ system.
New York City listened, and in 2010 implemented a grading system based on the Los Angeles model. According to an NYU study, the effect on the cleanliness of restaurants was immediate. More than 80% of restaurants qualified for an A, fines went down, and sales taxes increased.
Other areas followed. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia have statewide regulations; Las Vegas, Toronto, Dallas, Boston, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and San Francisco also have public gradings. Over the last few years, Yelp has been linking this information so consumers can see it before they even reach the front entrance.
Restaurant grading is not without controversy; some restaurateurs complain it’s capricious, biased, or a way for cities to squeeze more money out of them. The difference between an 89 and a 91 is negligible on paper, but the difference in grading can have a psychological impact. Even some customers bemoan the system making things like fresh mozzarella in violation. However, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the UCLA professor who created L.A.’s inspection system, said the overall result has been cleaner restaurants and healthier customers.
Restaurant grading is very popular, at least with health officials and the public. More and more municipalities are rolling out their own grading systems, which are often linked to social media. It’s clear that in order to stay successful and have a good consumer rating you must make sure your restaurant is always in the top percentile.
The most efficient method is to use technology that lets you continuously monitor and inspect your restaurant remotely. This way you can identify and eliminate potential violations before the health department shows up unannounced. The digital trail created by these internal inspection reports could possibly swing you from an 89 to a 91, thereby saving your reputation (and your business).
Do you want to make the grade? Try free checklists in CoInspect and digitize your paper trial today:
*Photo credit: Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES