What's in a Letter? Chefs and Restaurants Speak Out About the Department of Health's Letter Grades


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

We all know the signs: those crisp sheets of white paper posted in full view in the front window of every New York City restaurant, bar and café, printed either. "Sanitary Inspection Grade," reads the top of the sign, with a bold blue A, a blocky green B, or, in a few cases, a fat yellow C. Some diners ignore them completely; others follow them like scripture. You can bet chefs and restaurant owners are paying attention.

That's because the process that determines a restaurant's DOH rating is often a nightmare for the business under examination: at best confusing, and at worst entirely devastating to a hard-earned reputation. Over the past few weeks, we've reached out to chefs, restaurant owners, and front-of-house workers to get their thoughts on the letter-grading system, and boy, did they have a lot to say. Only one source we spoke to was willing to be named, a fact that underscores the basic mistrust that exists between restaurants and the DOH.

"In theory, I'm in favor of the letter grading system," said Brian Keyser, owner of Casellula Cheese & Wine Café in Hell's Kitchen. "But the way it's been implemented by the Department of Health has been a catastrophe."

Other industry folks didn't mince words, either. One general manager of a popular Upper East Side bar called the system a "ludicrous racket." "It's sucking money out of small independent businesses, which, incidentally, are the real creators of jobs in this city," he said.

Overall, restaurant industry employees cited three major issues with the letter-grading system: 1) the random inspections from officials with food knowledge that varies wildly; 2) the lack of correspondence between the DOH's food safety rules and actual food safety; and 3) the fundamental divide between what it takes for a restaurant to follow every DOH rule to the letter, and what it takes for a restaurant to serve hot, tasty food to a dining room full of hungry customers in a timely manner.

How Letter Grades Work

Before we examine each of these issues in depth, let's take a moment to briefly summarize the letter-grading system and how it works.

In July 2010, the Health Department began requiring restaurants in all five boroughs to post letter grades summarizing their sanitary inspection scores. According to the DOH's January 2012 report "Restaurant Grading in New York City at 18 Months," the new system was implemented to achieve three goals: "to inform the public about a restaurant's inspection results in a simple, accessible way; to improve sanitary conditions and food safety practices in restaurants; and to reduce illnesses associated with dining out."

Restaurants are inspected by a DOH inspector at least once a year. The inspector looks for issues in the kitchen that might pose health risks: pests like roaches and mice are the obvious example, but many, more complicated issues like food storage temperature, cross-contamination between raw meats, and the cleanliness of workers' hands, gloves and tools are also examined. Structural elements of the kitchen and building fall under scrutiny as well.

When a restaurant is initially inspected, it either receives an A that it can display in the window immediately; or, if the restaurant would have received a B or C, it can display a "Grade Pending" sign, and is assigned for re-inspection. The grade received upon second inspection—which is supposed to occur weeks later but often doesn't happen for months—is final, and gets displayed until a new round of inspections begins. Restaurants with an A grade only get inspected around once a year, while restaurants with lower grades are re-inspected more frequently.

In the 2012 report cited above, the DOH paints a sunny picture of the results of the letter-grading system, claiming that 41% of New York restaurants now earn an A rating on their first inspection—thereby avoiding fines and frequent re-inspections—and that 72% of restaurants currently display an A grade. But our sources pointed out that the system is far more nuanced than the official report suggests. We reached out to the DOH for comment on this issue but have yet to hear back.

Random Inspections, Random Inspectors

The number one problem cited by the restaurant industry folks we spoke with was the arbitrary nature of DOH inspections and the huge degree of variability in levels of knowledge of the inspectors who perform them.

"It's incredibly random based on the inspector you get," Brian Keyser said of the inspection process. He said that during one cycle of inspections at Casellula, which opened on West 52nd Street six years ago, the kitchen's initial inspection resulted in the devastating grade of a low C.

"But when we were re-inspected about a month later, we changed almost nothing and got an A," he explained. "The bottom line is that every inspector is different. And the grade has more to do with who the inspector is than what the restaurant is, or is not, doing."

Other people we interviewed echoed these thoughts exactly. The bar manager quoted earlier told the story of how when his bar, which opened in May 2012, was inspected for the first time shortly after opening, it received an A grade and the inspector essentially told them to keep up the good work. Nine months later, when the bar was re-inspected, "we didn't do so hot. If they were grading us on that visit, we would have gotten a B." The manager was told to address the issues and be ready for a follow-up visit in 14 days.

"They didn't come back for two or three months," the manager said. "When they did, we got even more violations, and a lot of them were pretty frivolous. It's really open to the interpretation of the person who comes in here, and what they deem fit at that moment."

DOH Rules Don't Equal Real Food Safety

While all those we spoke to in the restaurant industry agreed that food safety oversight is necessary, many took issue with some of the DOH's regulations and questioned their practical impact on diners' health. Several focused their ire on the DOH's requirement that kitchen staff wear gloves at all times.

"In theory, wearing gloves makes sense," said Brian Keyser. "But I'd rather have someone who washes their hands regularly prepare my food. Those gloves can get just as dirty as hands—and when someone behind a counter takes your money with his gloved hands, they're certainly not keeping anyone safe."

One waitress at a popular Lower East Side Asian restaurant cited inconsistencies in who the DOH requires to wear gloves.

"People behind the bar don't wear gloves, they don't wear hats. They don't make servers do it, either," she said, calling the rule a "double standard."

Other professionals we spoke to named a handful of seemingly random possible pitfalls a restaurant could be cited for during inspections:

  • Standard kitchen behavior such as hanging tongs from an oven door's handle (according to the DOH, a cook's dirty side towel could brush against the tongs and transfer bacteria to them)
  • Storing sliced lemons and limes destined for cocktails in a lowboy refrigerator in front of the bar instead of behind it (a customer could reach in and grab the fruit, rendering it unusable, the DOH says)
  • Keeping dirty side towels submerged in bleach solution at all times (sure, the rags might be clean, but what's the logic of a server dipping their hands in and out of bleach all night?)

The waitress who works on the Lower East Side summed up the issue this way: "All the rules sort of half make sense—but not really."

An additional point to consider is how little control the DOH has over larger food system issues, such as the frequent breakouts of E. Coli and other food born illnesses that are a result of industrial farming, and not the fault of any individual restaurant. No matter how hard the DOH might try to keep New York diners safe, it will never be able to protect them from these larger issues, even in a meticulous, A-rated restaurant.

Red Tape Kills Smooth Service

Our sources repeated, one after another, their feelings that the DOH just doesn't get how you run a restaurant; if they did, they would see how hard it is to follow all their requirements while serving hot food to paying customers in a timely manner.

"Where I used to work, we sometimes served 350 people between 7 and 9 p.m.," said a cook at who now works the line at a prominent Chelsea restaurant. "How can I do that if I'm following every rule in the health code?"

"It's a basic problem that the rules are written by people who don't cook," she continued. "Do I think the people at the DOH know anything about working in a kitchen? No, I don't."

The line cook also noted the vast differences between establishments the DOH deems "low-risk"—places like chain restaurants, which often just open and reheat frozen, already-cooked food and therefore don't run much risk of introducing contaminants—and "high-risk" eateries, places like fine dining restaurants as well as small neighborhood spots that cook every element of every plate from start to finish, and therefore have to practice greater food safety. The problem, she pointed out, is that all of these business are ranked according to the same system.

"Restaurants that make almost everything they serve from scratch have so much to think about," she said. "At my restaurant, we braise beef for four hours. That's just not the same as handing over a paper-wrapped muffin at Starbucks."

"Who's getting all these As?" she wondered. "Is it places like Starbucks and delis that don't actually cook anything? Is it easier for them to get As?"

No Solution in Sight

Despite the restaurant industry's issues with the letter-grading system, every source we spoke to agreed that food safety in New York City restaurants is a necessary goal that requires some kind of regulation. The problem lies not with goal of the system, but with the way it's implemented, they said.

But chefs, owners, and servers were at a loss when asked how they would improve upon the current system. Some suggested improved training of inspectors; others called for a more forgiving set of warnings, instead of point deductions and fines; still others suggested that inspections should be tailored to fit the type of restaurant, be it a chain, a coffee shop, or a fine-dining destination. But mostly, workers in the industry agreed that it would be next to impossible to effect any real changes.

"Rules exist for a reason, but there's always going to be conflict," the line cook said. "There's always going to be a conflict between the rules and how food gets cooked. They're diametrically opposed concepts."

For many, the biggest problem with the letter-grading system is that its arbitrary rules, surprise visits, and high fines for violations set up a basic distrust between restaurants and the DOH. For the system to truly function, workers said, there needs to be more collaboration between the DOH and the restaurants it ranks, a shared goal of keeping diners safe and well-fed.

"We shouldn't be enemies," Brian Keyser, the restaurant owner, said. "We should be friends."