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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

Sometimes, Making the Grade Is a Survival Issue

July 06, 1998|SANDY BANKS

He was in town for the weekend and we were planning a romantic night out. We'd start at our favorite restaurant--a place that prides itself on healthy food and wholesome preparation, a place whose very name evokes the image of clean living and high standards.

We parked--the lot seemed less crowded than usual--and made our way to the front door. It had been months since we'd been there, and we were surprised when we looked through the window to see banks of empty tables inside.

The placard at the entrance told us why.

A giant B glared out from the grade card. "This establishment received a score of 80%-89% at the time of inspection. . . ," the notice read.

Not a bad grade--on an algebra test or a chemistry final. But in the brave new world of restaurant ratings, anything less than an A can be perceived as the kiss of death.

We got in our car and drove away.

*

If you've been out to eat recently in the city of Los Angeles--or any of two dozen other cities in Los Angeles County that post the grades--you know what I mean. You've seen those red, blue or green grades emblazoned on the front of food establishments from grocery stores to taco stands to four-star restaurants.

Sparked by a television news report last fall on unsanitary practices at local restaurants, the county beefed up its food service inspection program and, in January, began requiring eateries to post their inspection grades.

Three times a year inspectors visit every restaurant, unannounced, looking for health and safety violations as mundane as light bulbs without protective covers, and as egregious as rats and roaches running wild. A restaurant starts with a perfect score of 100 and loses points for every violation.

Restaurant owners, as you might expect, have mixed feelings about all this. Some consider the system capricious. They say it treats minor infractions--like a leaky soap dispenser--with the same gravity as it would mice making their home on a kitchen counter.

Others--mostly those who get A's--are grateful for a way to let customers, at a glance, separate the wheat from the chaff.

The man who runs the county program says it has drawn praise from consumers--no surprise in a society obsessed with ratings, desperate for a shorthand way to make the right choice.

"People look for the grades; they ask for the grades," says Mayson Kodama, manager of environmental health services for the County of L.A. "It puts the restaurants on notice, because they know certain things won't be tolerated. If you get a C and your neighbor gets an A, well, you know that doesn't look too good."

But Kodama says a bad grade needn't be the kiss of death. A restaurant can improve its grade at its next inspection--if it's still in business after four months as a C.

And the grades don't tell everything, he admits. The details are in the inspection reports, which every restaurant must keep on file and make available for public review.

Would he eat at a restaurant that got a C? He pauses a moment, then chuckles. "I think I'd ask to see the inspection report first."

*

I've lowered my standards since the grading began. Turning my nose up at all the Bs would put too many restaurants off the menu, so to speak.

But I faced a dilemma this weekend, when I learned that my favorite neighborhood Chinese restaurant had rated only a lowly C.

The inspector had shown up, the owner said, on a day the restaurant staff was scrambling to cater a graduation party and to serve an unexpectedly large luncheon crowd. "They said we had too much [uncooked] chicken out. . . . There was a problem with the temperature. So we got 78% . . . just two points from a B."

Those two points are costing him hundreds of customers and thousands of dollars, he says. As he speaks, I watch a young couple peer at the grade in his window, then turn away.

I'll stay, I decide.

"Yes, I'll have a menu, please. . . . And a copy of your inspection report."

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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