Thursday, August 26, 2010

Grade A Pizza

For the first time in my life, I sampled a slice of pizza from a Grade A pizza parlor. Oh, I’ve had thousands of slices through the decades from this very shop, but today’s takeout came with the big city’s imprimatur. I had been reading of late that New York City’s Department of Health would be adding letter grades—A, B, or C—to their restaurant inspections. And by law, proprietors would have to prominently post their ratings. I can attest that restaurant report cards are now a reality in these parts.

But there’s something about this bureaucratic codicil that doesn’t quite pass the smell test. Essentially, it’s handing an additional cudgel to restaurant inspectors—men and women who make the rounds and assign points for health infractions that run the gamut from the trivial to the serious. However, the difference between an A grade and a B grade could be inconsequential where food safety and cleanliness are concerned, but very consequential in business gained or business lost. Ditto the difference between a B grade and a C grade. Restaurant inspectors have tremendous leeway and make some rather arbitrary decisions along the way. In other words: the city that never sleeps, led by its billionaire au pair, has just made the life of small businesspersons in the culinary trade more problematic.

The little guys are the ones who suffer most from the increasingly hefty fines levied with ever greater regularity against them. And the little guys will be the ones who suffer most from B and C grades. Even if we the hungry consumer are blissfully unaware how the Bs and Cs came to be, the psychological effect alone will drive business away, especially when there are A competitors nearby.

In theory, the letter grading is not such a bad idea. It places legitimate pressure on lax restaurateurs to remain lean, mean, and clean. But where pencil-pushing bureaucrats are concerned—whose mission is not only the health and wellness of the citizenry, but to collect fines to fill the city’s insatiable coffers—I remain justifiably skeptical. And I'd eat at my favorite pizza place regardless of its report card.

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