Curve the Grades

City Hall introduced a new grading system for restaurants less than two years ago. It was touted as a way of ensuring the safety and cleanliness of the city’s 24,000 restaurants—eateries with an “A” were the cleanest, those with a “C” were branded as failures.

While Mayor Bloomberg thinks the system is terrific, the city’s restaurant industry begs to differ. And the industry is right. The prominent letter grades have a chilling effect on businesses that already operate on the margins, and the fines for less-than-stellar compliance are too stiff.

The mayor believes that the system’s critics are, in the main, restaurant owners who “don’t want to keep their restaurants clean.” But that’s simply not true. Critics rightly note that grades can be disproportionately affected by issues that have little to do with food preparation. One critic noted that a cracked toilet cover or a gap near a pipe has led inspectors to issue something less than an “A” grade. That could drive customers away on the false assumption that the grade reflects sloppy food preparation or a dirty kitchen. (About three in four restaurants have earned an “A,” according to city statistics.)

Critics also complain that inspectors are not consistent enough and that they are not sufficiently knowledgeable about the industry they monitor.

There’s enough unease and unhappiness in the restaurant world to revisit the grading system to ensure that it is fair, consistent and not punitive. The mayor suggests that any effort to water down the grading system will lead inevitably to roaches crawling on dining room floors and spoiled food served to unsuspecting diners.

But there was never a sense, before the grading system was introduced, that standards in the city’s restaurants were on the decline. That’s not to say the old system was better. But it does suggest that the current system is too intrusive and arbitrary.

The City Council should ensure that the inspection system is fair, and that restaurant owners are not unduly penalized for minor violations.