Food & Wine Thursdays: Alphabet Soup and the Silliness of Health Department Letter Grades

Opening a restaurant is a tricky business. Opening a restaurant in LA is particularly difficult. Because of my close involvement with restaurants in Los Angeles, I have some insight into the institutional difficulties that are unique to Los Angeles and make the restaurant business here so perilous, so I figured why not bring them up here periodically for discussion? First up, the health inspector letter grades.

As a Bay Area transplant, I’ve always found it something of a novelty to see the LA County Health Dept. letter grades posted in the window of every diner, taqueria, Walgreens, and Office Depot. People seem to find them comforting. I know of many people who will not go to a business with a grade below an A. I also know a few people who view eating at a C-graded restaurant to be a badge of honor, that such a restaurant must be more authentic than its higher-graded neighbors.

It’s odd though, because if you think about it the letter grades don’t matter. Here’s why:

If a restaurant passes its health inspection, what does the score matter? Is there a sliding scale of “possibly-make-you-sick-itude” for restaurants? Am I more likely to die of salmonella at a “C” than I am from an “A”? If a significant possibility of salmonella poisoning exists at all, shouldn’t that warrant an “F”? Seems to me that a health inspection is a pass/fail proposition. We’re determining a business’ fitness for serving food to the public, not the quality of its analysis of the theme of the “phallic female” in Hemingway’s later works.

So what’s the point in the grading system? In what is pure rampant speculation, here’s my theory:

1. A restaurant that had an “A” receives a “B.”
2. Angelenos with the ingrained belief that these letter grades mean something slow down/stop their patronage of that restaurant.
3. The economic impact forces the restaurant to make rapid adjustments, bringing the Health Dept. back before their next scheduled visit. (Perhaps for a fee?)
4. Health Dept. is able to show that they’re relevant, get more funding, hire more inspectors, go on gambling junkets to Macau.

Health Inspector letter grades are stupid. A restaurant passes and stays open or fails and is shut down. Keep the inspections on file and make them available online to the consumer, like they do in many cities. But the posting requirement gives the grades more weight than they deserve (I mean, what is the difference between an 88 and a 92 anyway?). Letter grade distinctions are arbitrary and the economic impact of dropping down a letter is too great.

This creates yet another hurdle for restaurants operating in LA and disadvantages new or immigrant-owned restaurants whose operators are not familiar with the byzantine requirements of Los Angeles bureaucracy, not that they don’t keep a safe restaurant.

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Food, I'm Just Sayin and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Food & Wine Thursdays: Alphabet Soup and the Silliness of Health Department Letter Grades

  1. Seeing that “A” posted there instead of that “C” makes me feel warm and fuzzy though and like a lot of your friends, I prefer not to eat at those falling below a B :/ I don’t know what the point of the letter system, I always thought it had to do with how many bad points they got, I derno. :)

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