Restaurant Health Grades, in the Bronx and Beyond

The National Bakery on Jerome Avenue near East Gun Hill Road, which has an A grading from the health department. (Photo by Wendy Joan Biddlecombe)

More restaurants in New York City are earning A grades than at any time since the NYC Department of Health started issuing restaurant letter grades in 2010, according to numbers released by the city in late May.

“A” letter grades are visible throughout the key corridors of the Norwood, Bedford Park, Fordham and Kingsbridge neighborhoods of the Bronx. But, as of July 12, 2017, 92 percent of restaurants in the 10458, 10467 and 10468 zip codes scored an A grade, putting these neighborhoods one percentage point lower than the city average of 93 percent.

“Citywide levels are slightly higher [in A grades],” health department spokesperson Christopher Miller told Norwood News in an email, adding that the health department continues to do outreach in the Bronx to help restaurants achieve or maintain an A.

Since letter grades have been assigned starting in 2010, 154 restaurants in the zip codes that include Fordham, Bedford Park, Kingsbridge Heights and Norwood were closed because of unsanitary conditions. Last year, 17 restaurants were closed, some temporarily, according to the health department (by comparison, 42 were shut down in 2010). In late May, Montezuma Restaurant on West Kingsbridge Road, which had previously scored a B, was shut down for a week after inspectors found evidence of mice and roaches, some food stored at improper temperatures and other food handling issues.

Justin Mashia, who lives in Kingsbridge Heights, says he usually eats out in the Bronx and Manhattan about three times per week.

“I used to pay attention to the grades, but lately it’s been seeming as if all of them have good grades,” Mashia said. “When I eat out, I’m generally just trusting that the restaurant is clean and my food has been prepared very sanitarily. However, I refuse to eat at a restaurant if it has less than a B grade.”

How Scoring Works

Restaurants are graded on a point system. The amount of points earned is converted to a letter grade: A, B and C. There is nothing lower than a C, and if a restaurant scores a C, the health department may continue to visit about once a month until the restaurant achieves a better score (although the better score isn’t immediately reflected in the letter grade in the window) or the health department closes the restaurant.

Restaurants are scored on a number of factors that include the obvious: the presence of mice, roaches, “filth flies” and other critters, as well as improper refrigeration, food handling techniques, cross contamination and personal hygiene. But, said Carmen Bermudez, the manager at Tequilaz Restaurant and Lounge on Jerome Avenue near Gun Hill Road, what a lot of people don’t understand is that the health department considers things other than food in their score.

“The problem with the grading system is that people think it’s just based on food. The grade is based on other things, say if you had a broken door handle, or a lightbulb went out [while a health inspector was there],” Bermudez said.

“When people see an A, they understand that this is a place where they can be assured is kept clean, and they’re following health department procedures,” said Bermudez, who said she’s been in the food service industry for the last 15 years. (Tequilaz was recently cited by the health department for not having a restaurant permit, and does not currently have a letter grade.)

The uptick in A grades means two things, says health inspection consultant Leon Lubarsky: restaurants are cleaner and safer to eat at, and they are getting better at following the health department rules.

“There is no way to cheat the system,” said Lubarsky, whose company, Letter Grade Consulting, works with restaurants to comply with health department regulations. “If a health inspector comes in, there’s no way to really pretend that someone is wearing a hat when they’re not, or wearing gloves when they’re not. It’s a true combination of restaurants understanding and following the rules better.”

Still, restaurants that receive a C score on a follow-up inspection must wait approximately three to six months for another inspection that could raise their grade.

“[Inspectors] expect restaurants to do better,” Lubarsky said. “Restaurants have to fix the violations, but fixing the violations will not fix the grade for that inspection cycle.”

What Isn’t Graded

Although delis and food carts are tested and inspected by the health department and follow the same rules and requirements as restaurants, these establishments don’t receive a letter grade that the consumer can see.

That’s changing, at least for food carts. On May 23, the City Council passed a bill that will require food carts to receive a letter grade (the regulation is set to go into effect within 270 days of the bill’s passage).

“This is about consumer awareness,” Lubarsky, the health grade consultant, said of the recent change to include food carts. “Food carts and trucks perform the same service that a restaurant does, just without a seating area.”

Those who want to order a chicken and rice dish or a sandwich at a neighborhood deli will have to do their own research. Though delis are inspected by the city health department, they receive a pass/fail grade and are not required to post letter grades in the window because they are regulated by the New York State Department of Agriculture, not the city health department. That’s also the case for supermarkets, bodegas and other establishments that do less than 50 percent of their business preparing food.

“I don’t think the letter grade would help us,” said Fouad Ahmed, who owns 169 Gourmet Deli on East 205th Street. “There are a lot of delis all over the place. When it comes to restaurants, the letter grade helps them a lot because if you like the food, and you think the place is clean and that place is graded an A, you will walk a distance to go to the restaurant. But delis are all over.”

To find out how restaurants score, and to see a list of inspections and violations, visit http://a816-restaurantinspection.nyc.gov/RestaurantInspection/SearchBrowse.do

Wendy Joan Biddlecombe writes for Norwood News. This article was written as part of the Health Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp.

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