There has been considerable discussion in the forums this month about health department scores, and how much they really matter. I was in Los Angeles at the time, where they do things a little bit different. Instead of hiding scores in a database that no one is likely to see, restaurants receive a letter grade, which they are required to post in the window. Grading procedures are standard, with 90-100% an “A”, 80 – 89% a “B”, etc. The signs are about 12″ tall, and have a bright blue letter, that is easy to see when you are passing on the street.
In my informal survey driving around town, I never saw any score below an A. I’m wondering if it is the threat of public humiliation that keeps kitchens on their toes, or if the health department in Los Angeles grades easier than Multhnomah. Either way, it is interesting, and food for thought.
I had some time to do a bit more research, and found the LA County health department has a database much like Multhnomah’s. I pulled up some random restaurants, and am struck by how many violations a restaurant can have, and still receive a score above 90%.
Another interesting feature about the LA Country website, is the bi-annual list of Restaurant Closures, along with the underlying reason: Vermin infestation, unsafe food temperature, no hot water, etc. I wonder how many restaurants get closed by the health department here?
When I was working at L’Ermitage 30 years ago, inspections weren’t nearly as stringent as they are today. While every station was always spotless, and the kitchen was washed from top to bottom every night, the way ingredients were stored, and the temperature of sauces wasn’t really measured. It was cleanliness that everyone cared about. Still, I don’t think we ever killed anyone, because we used common sense!
As I spent time in other restaurants over the years, the rules became progressively tougher. How things have changed!
Many years ago, Oregon had a similar system, with a restaurant’s rating displayed for all to see. It was very, very rare to see anything less than an “A”. You had to screw up pretty badly to get a “B” (or have substandard equipment,) and a “C” meant your doors would be closed.
I don’t think the restaurant kitchens of Oregon were all that great. The standards were basic, and any establishment that could run a decent restaurant could score an “A”. Many times, the “B” rating had less to do with cleanliness, and more to do with substandard equipment; no hood vent, no machine dishwasher, that sort of thing.
I don’t know what Los Angeles’ standards are; it would be interesting to know the criteria for awarding the grades.
I’ve seen letter grades by restaurant doors in Kansas, Texas and other states.
I wonder why Oregon is so lax at protecting consumers by allowing restaurants to hide their
ratings from customers.
It’s because of the powerful restaurant lobby in this state is why the public letter grades went away. “B” grades were more common than you might think. And yes, “C” meant something seriously was wrong and they were under threat of being shut down unless something crucial was fixed within about 15 days.
In LA there was a correlation between institution of this system and overall increased business countywide.
Out here in North Carolina, they have the signs up with the score (out of 100) where anyone can easily see it when they come into the restaurant or order. A score under 95 is pretty uncommon in my experience, and you can actually score 102 points since having a person on staff who has taken certain courses from the state (typically in food safety, and they usually have the manager do it) gets you a 2 point bonus for your score. They don’t hide them here at all. In Seattle, I used to check the online database to see how places that I ate would score. One place I used to go for Dim Sum had a consistent pattern: Score 70 or so for many violations (not storing food correctly, rats, etc…), then at the retest a month later, score 95. 6 months later, the process repeated. I never went back after that.
There may be a flip side here: back when Oregon was using the letter grade system, were health inspectors using the same checklists and point-deduction standards they now use to generate the numeric scores — or were the inspections made using a scale involving a different and perhaps shorter set of line items? [My guess is that when the change away from letter grades was made here, the current points system was developed and sold as a way to make inspection scoring “more detailed and more accurate” than the letter grades. If someone can tell us for sure one way or the other, it would be interesting to know.]
Thing is, it seems counter-intuitive to me that restaurant kitchens *as a whole* in greater LA are any cleaner — or any dirtier — than restaurant kitchens in Portland (or Seattle, or Cleveland, or Boston). My own suspicion is that it’s just easier (and more useful) to game a limited-tier scoring system than it is to try and jigger a numeric rating. [Note that what an “A” rating actually means is that the highest percentage score an LA kitchen actually needs is 90%. There is no incentive whatsoever, as the system’s been described, for establishments to push a 90% score all the way up to 100%.]
Jeff Shultz says
That Dim Sum place sounds like the Tin Tin Buffet in Salem – a place that really needs to have a letter or posted number grade system.
Current score is a 58…. which means a reinspection, but they aren’t closed.
I was in LA until 2004 and saw plenty of places with lower than an A, lots and lots of Bs, and a few times, a C, notably at a disgusting if interesting little place in West Hollywood where, when I was pregnant, I often ate breakfast. The kid turned out fine.
As for dirty restaurants in Portland: the most memorably filthy was Gino’s, the condition of whose restroom I have only ever previously seen in the bathrooms of punk rock clubs.
Food Dude says
What scares me, is I have no doubt you’ve spent time in “punk rock clubs”
As far as I can tell, Multnomah County’s Health Department works quite well. Are there actually remarkable cases of food-borne illness that aren’t being prevented and corrected? Or is this just something of a provocative issue?
Me, I’m on the side of bloody burgers, real mayo (member that?), chocolate mousse, well-rested steaks, boudin noir…
Food Dude says
It’s just something of a provocative issue ;)
I laughed when I read this post-it reminded me of a comment my Mother made during her first visit to Portland. I moved here 6 months ago from Dallas, Texas and I absolutely adore the quirkiness of my new hometown-but I’m not sure Mom appreciates it. After a meal at my favorite tiny but crowded & cluttered vegetarian restaurant, I took her and my teenage niece to the original Voodoo Donuts. As Mom looked around warily, she asked if they even had health inspectors in this city………I gave up and took her to Applebee’s and Hometown Buffet the next day. BTW, my niece adored Voodoo and loved everything else about Portland and is already campaigning to attend college here.
She prefers Applebees and Hometown Buffet? Horrors.
How did you and your niece turn out OK coming from such a deprived background?
I was extremely impressed with the inspection we had today from Multnomah County. It’s the first time I’ve also had the hotel end of an inspection. It was without a doubt the most detailed and thorough inspection I have ever partaken of. We had several very valuable discussions about various issues. I learned a few things like how we could have lost points if a few things had been elsewhere on various shelves on the hotel side, and a few useful things about septic systems as well.
While discussing the recent lowering of recommended temps for pork I learned the last reported case of trichonosis was just after they lowered said temps funnily enough. Some bright spark in the neighborhood shot a cougar and thought cougar carpaccio sounded yummy apparently and got seriously ill. Duh! ALWAYS freeze your cougar meat at -15C for three weeks before you carpaccio it, and, it’ll slice easier too!
Warning : Do not try this at home with bear or walrus meat ……
Here’s a relevant article from The Onion on this subject:
Health Department Closes Perfectly Good Burrito Place
June 30, 2007 | Issue 43•26
…”According to a report filed by city food-safety inspector Dan Griffith, Burrito Max, a cheap, no-frills eatery that never aspired to be anything it wasn’t, had a handful of very small, practically insignificant health-code violations, such as vermin on the premises, a persistent foul odor, traces of E. coli, and unsanitary food-contact surfaces and equipment—like what restaurant in this city doesn’t…The report, however, did not mention the restaurant’s free drink refills and the signature chili-cheese fries, which, according to restaurant regulars, were “awesome.”
“If those guys got a bad burrito, they should have just asked for another one instead of writing the place up like a bunch of little bitches,” said Ohio State University sophomore Greg Hall, 19, who, like a lot of customers, didn’t absolutely love the food, but found it more than serviceable, especially during lunch, after bar time, or when he was craving a burrito…
Though the report cited the employees’ habit of not wearing hairnets or shirts and showing up to work “in a generally unhygienic state,” it overlooked the fact that the heavily pierced and tattooed staff added to the authentic, laid-back atmosphere of Burrito Max. Most importantly, the place served solid, hearty, burritos fast and hot, something most burrito joints in the area do not. In addition, the line to order was never too long.
“I’m sure the risk of food-borne illnesses wasn’t as big a deal as they made it out to be,” said 24-year-old legal assistant Deirdre Sarnoff upon hearing that the restaurant’s poultry and beef were stored at improper temperatures. “It’s not like I ever bit into a cockroach or anything. Where am I supposed to eat now, some overpriced corporate burrito chain like Chipotle?”…”Christ,” Sarnoff added. “It seems like every time I find a cheap place that’s open past midnight the stupid city comes along and shuts it down.”
Burrito Max is not the only local eatery to be unfairly shuttered by the Health Department in recent months. In March, Cecilia’s Pizza was shut down for rat feces and a lack of properly covered waste receptacles, despite its sweet $3.99 deal that included two slices of cheese pizza and a medium drink.”