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Thousands of restaurants bump letter grades by fighting inspections

A grade

A grade Credit: Getty Images

Restaurateurs that take the extra step of contesting their health violations usually come out as winners.

Nearly three-quarters of eatery owners that fought their poor grade have ended up having sanitary infractions tossed, and many have had their C's and B's turn into A's, according to an amNewYork analysis of city health department statistics.

The data, which run from July 2010, when the city began linking sanitary violations to letter grades, through Sept. 13, 2011, show that:

— Of the 12,503 hearings held for restaurants with B and C grades, 41 percent of restaurants were able to get enough violation points knocked off to raise their grade by at least one letter.

— A total of 261 of eateries with an original C grade improved to an A.

— Only two restaurants had their number of violations increased.

“We fight the grades every time — all the restaurants do,” said Kanae Maeda, manager of Once Upon a Tart in Greenwich Village. The bakery’s owner was successful twice in lowering their violations, though they still had to fork over more than $1000 in fines.

“I would say in 99 percent of the cases we have had some sort of dismissal and 100 percent of the cases the fines are reduced,” said Kevin O’Donoghue, a partner at restaurant law firm Helbraun and Levey.

On average, seven violation points are shaved off through a hearing, though some of the 59 judges overseeing restaurant grade cases dismiss more points on average than their peers, according to the data.

The Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, which has been overseeing the cases since taking over from the Department of Health in July, said it is considering establishing a set of criteria to ensure that judges’ decisions are consistent across the board, according to a spokeswoman.

The health department argued that even if judges end up overruling their inspectors, the issuing of violation points is a valid way to characterize safety conditions at the time of an inspection.

Meanwhile, Andrew Rigie of the New York State Restaurant Association said the number of infractions dismissed is evidence that “you have a subjective inspector issuing violations.”

“The city shouldn’t be levying fines on small business owners and creating fear and anxiety among them because they may have to post a B or C in the window,” Rigie said.

The breakdown of grades earned at the time of inspection (initial or reinspection):

A - 60% (14,611)

B - 28% (6,704)

C - 12% (2,953)

The distribution of final grades:

A - 76% (17,653)

B - 18% (4,120)

C - 6%  (1,411)

Source: NYC Department of Health


Follow reporter Marc Beja on Twitter: @Marc_Beja


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