By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Sometime this spring, the city council may or may not adopt a new health inspection system for restaurants. It's based on a program adopted by the state, which in turn is derived from federal standards. Under the new guidelines, code violations would mean demerits rather than points chopped from an establishment's overall score.
Given this city's cantankerous political environment, the plan garnered surprisingly universal support. Representatives for the local food service industry encourage the change, and council members seem to favor it as well. Both know, without doubt, that a number of demerits for a critical violation protects public health better than a bunch of points lopped off for the same infraction.
Clearly this is the dawn of a new era in food safety, a golden epoch where diners no longer fear stomach cramps and bouts of projectile vomiting after a night on the town.
"You can score in the mid-90s and have been shut down for a roach infestation," says Tracey Evers of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. "People don't know that." Hence the pride evinced for the Texas Food Establishment Rules, the state program under consideration here. "The new code focuses first and foremost on time and temperature and hygiene," Evers explains. "That's what we like about it."
These people really care. Insects scuttling around the kitchen would cost four or five demerits from a restaurant's overall score--a major blow compared with the five or so points knocked off for the same violation under the current system.
So why, given the restaurant association's obvious concern for public health, does the organization oppose any plan forcing establishments to post inspection scores on doors or windows for all to see? After all, 94 percent of Dallas restaurants earned an 80 or higher--an A or B, under a proposed letter grading system--on health inspections last year.
Apparently we're all too dumb to understand the results. Jeff Frankel, owner of Mattito's and president of the GDRA, told The Dallas Morning News in January that "to have an A, B or C posted in the window to rank a restaurant--it creates an unlevel playing field." The playing field, in this case, is the health code. Sure, it seems unfair to dock an establishment for momentarily placing a sugar scoop on the container (it belongs inside) or for staff members gulping cups of water in a sweltering kitchen. But everyone knows the code--that's level enough. An A, B or C confirms a restaurant's performance on that playing field during an inspection.
"We understand a B is good," Evers says, "but the general public won't understand that."
"Bullshit," answers Dallas-area resident Denise Raver. "We went to public school."
Here's the deal: Small businesses fear any action that may harm the bottom line. And independent restaurants operate on razor-thin margins, generally earning a profit of 5 percent, if fortunate. Thus the GDRA attacks threatening new regulations, such as the smoking ban. It's not that the association wants you to hack your lung out during a violent attack of emphysema. They worried that anti-smoking legislation would drive tobacco addicts to Addison, forcing Dallas restaurants to shut down. And we know how those Uptown smokers love traveling north of LBJ Freeway.
Here's an example of how a person's role as industry spokesman coupled with the usual long hours straining to keep a place running in the face of consumer trends, government regulations and other factors causes the occasional bitter snap at "outsiders." Last year at a GDRA happy hour, Frankel complained about food critics. They should consider the time, effort and money owners put into their establishments, he told me.
My response: "No one cares."
Diners care about food, service, atmosphere--and perhaps the presence of insects or microscopic, gut-churning bacteria. So what if a budding restaurateur secretly hocked family jewelry and spent 80 hours a week in the facility just to keep it open? Both critics and customers judge a place by what's on the plate and their immediate post-dining lifespan. Evers and Frankel don't want you to keel over, of course; they just fear the effect of posted inspection scores on the revenue of Dallas restaurants.
"I think you'd find it would be a punitive measure for the B restaurants," Evers claims.
Yet when Los Angeles required passing restaurants to post an A, B or C, revenue increased 5.7 percent in top-ranked establishments and almost 1 percent in those forced to display a B. Only C's and failing restaurants suffered a drop in sales--by 1 percent, in the case of C-rated places.
Moreover, the percentage of restaurants earning A's increased from 58 percent in 1997, when the program began, to 80 percent a year ago. And the Journal of Environmental Health compared L.A. hospitalization data from 1993 and 2000, discovering a significant decrease in reported cases of food-borne illness. In other words, posting scores yielded greater code compliance, more revenue for top-scoring venues and fewer incidents of food poisoning.
Oh, and patrons like it--something not lost on Dallas restaurateurs. "There has to be a balance, but we want to make sure the consumer feels comfortable," says John Szymanski, general manager of Oceanaire. "And if everybody has A's, they'd feel comfortable."