HARTFORD —— No shirt, no shoes, no grade — no service.
Beginning in January, city restaurants will be required to post a letter grade based on their most recent health inspection. Restaurants with a score of 90 to 100 would earn an "A," while those who score 80 to 89 would get a "B."
Any restaurant scoring less than 80 would be re-inspected within two weeks, city officials said, and a second failed inspection could cause it to be shut down. Restaurants scoring less than 80 do not get a grade.
The inspection standards for restaurants won't change, said Raul Pino, acting director of the city's health and human services department, but the new rules will provide transparency.
"We read some articles and research papers that indicated the quality, hygienically speaking, increases with initiatives similar to these," he said. "There's room for friendly competition when you display the grades."
Employees in the health and human services department hatched the idea after reading about other cities that have adopted the grading system, like New York and Los Angeles. Pino said Stamford and Farmington also have restaurant rating systems in place.
The grading won't apply to school or hospital cafeterias, temporary events or nonprofits, he said.
Restaurants that receive a "B" can request a re-inspection — usually within two weeks — to try to raise their grade, Pino said, but they'll have to pay for it. Otherwise, they'll have to wait for the next inspection to improve their score.
City health inspectors typically perform checks on restaurants about three times a year, he said. Inspectors review restaurants' hygienic practices and methods of food storage and preparation, among other things.
Although the grading system may put pressure on restaurants, Pino said, it's not designed to punish them. He said city officials had considered including a "C" letter grade in the mix, but ultimately decided it wouldn't be a business-friendly move.
"For the most part, we have a great relationship with the restaurants," he said. "The idea is to increase the quality, not to punish."
Following the inspections, restaurants must display the letter grades in the front window, in a display case on the outside front wall or on a drive-through menu board, according to a city ordinance.
"We are committed to ensuring that food service establishments adhere to safety and cleanliness guidelines and that the information is in the public's hands," Mayor Pedro Segarra said in a statement.
The grading system has drawn mixed reactions from city restaurateurs.
To Richard Rosenthal, president of the Max Restaurant Group, which includes Max Downtown and the Trumbull Kitchen, the system gives some restaurants a chance to distinguish themselves.
"Obviously if you have an 'A' you'll want to brag about it," he said. "If you have a 'B' you'll be a little embarrassed and if you don't have either of those you're in trouble.
"I think restaurateurs and guests alike are very sensitive to the cleanliness of a restaurant, so it's a good thing that customers can be guaranteed there's been an inspection."
Robert Maffucci, who owns Vito's By The Park, an Italian diner on Trumbull Street, said he welcomes the grades. He said his staff already is put through rigorous training on cleanliness and food preparation.
"We would wear it as a badge of honor," he said of the grades. "It gives us a little more purpose. We take public safety issues very seriously."
But some managers said the inspections only give a small picture of how a restaurant operates, and scores could depend on who is completing the review.
"The inspection is a snapshot of one day when someone walks in. At that time, any list of things could happen — your cooler could be down and things could loose their temperature — and you'll get a grade based on that," said Michael Picard, general manager of Hot Tomatoes on Union Place. "Health inspection from town to town and inspector to inspector is very subjective and that's a dangerous thing."
The letter grades probably won't make a difference for restaurants with a solid customer base, he said.
"The customers are smart; they know a good restaurant when they walk in," Picard said. "If the restaurant is clean and the food is good, there's no need for a letter grade on the door."
Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association, a nonprofit trade association that represents more than 600 restaurants and restaurant industry businesses across the state, said the grades probably won't have a huge impact. "If you're keeping your restaurant clean and up to par, you should really have no problem with it," she said.
But, she added: "The one thing we would like to see is consistency. The grading system should be consistent from one inspector to another and one time to the next."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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