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City set to post letter grades for sanitation in restaurant windows

LA letter grades (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

LA letter grades (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

New York City follows in the footsteps of Los Angeles, above, which has used a letter-grading system in its restaurants for more than a decade. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

City restaurants soon won’t be able to hide their report cards.

Beginning in July, large sanitation-letter grades will be posted in restaurant windows, upsetting owners who call the placards misleading scarlet letters.

Customers will find any of three grades in the window: a favorable “A,” passing “B” or disastrous “C.”

“Giving consumers more information will help make our restaurants safer and cleaner,” said Dr. Thomas Farley, commissioner of the city health department. The board of heath Tuesday approved the system.

Poorly performing eateries have a chance to appeal before getting stuck with a B or C. They can put up a “grade pending” sign while they contest their results, and they can expect follow-up inspections within weeks. They must then post their new grades — good or bad.

The New York State Restaurant Association blasted the letter grades as a “snapshot in time” that shames eateries and misinforms diners.

“This is not to educate the public at all. It makes a fool out of them,” said Marc Murphy, the association’s vice president and owner of the Manhattan restaurants Landmarc and Ditch Plains. “A rodent violation can be two flies. Tell me who in the city hasn’t seen two flies?”

The policy has been more than a year in the making, with the health department seeking public comments and finding broad support among New Yorkers.

Park Slope foodie Joe Ferris on Tuesday said he wouldn’t dine at even his favorite restaurant if it received anything less than an “A.”

“We don’t know what’s going on in the kitchen,” said Ferris, 33. “They’re going to look at things we can’t see, things we’re not privy to.”

Health officials are tweaking the criteria to ensure restaurants will be graded on sanitation rather than less relevant blunders such as permit violations. About one-third of the city’s eateries would currently earn an “A,” but officials hope the system will improve that rate and encourage businesses to be more careful.

Los Angeles, which has used a similar evaluation method for more than a decade, has seen a 13 percent decline in food-borne illnesses.

A recent Zagat poll found 83 percent of New Yorkers back a letter-grading system.

“In the long term, it’s good for the restaurant industry,” said Tim Zagat, cofounder of Zagat Survey. “The health department is not trying to hurt restaurants, it’s just trying to make sure that everyone has a healthy experience.”


The L.A. way
New York is letter-grading rookie compared to Los Angeles, which has been grading its restaurants since 1997.

Back then, about 40 percent of its eateries earned an “A” in sanitation. Within 10 years, however, compliance has skyrocketed and more than 82 percent of restaurants boast the top mark.

“It has been a very big successful and it empowers consumers as well,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the L.A. health department. “If it’s done in objective manner, it will work in New York. In many ways it’s a gift to consumers.”

(Emily Ngo)

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