Know the Score

Jill Jordan

Know the Score
Some people don't want restaurant inspection scores posted. Here's why.

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.

Big stuff.

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."

Now, the GDRA claims to support public access. Evers touts the city's Web site as the best place to locate inspection information. "Oh, sure," counters Dallas resident Stephen leMay. "I'm going to Google my fried chicken restaurant." In an interview earlier this year, Frankel suggested diners call the city's health department if they truly wanted to know how a particular place fared on its last inspection.

Yeah. Helpful, particularly for the overworked city staff.

"If they're against posting scores, they have something to hide," notes Ginni Mercer of Dallas. "That's their lame excuse for not abiding by the rules."

Sure, the association backs a plan requiring restaurants to keep a copy of their most recent inspection on hand should a customer ask. But that, like Internet access and the after-hours availability of health department receptionists, is not always convenient. Walk into a restaurant, hold up the line while evaluating the report, decide on another place and repeat.

To Szymanski, it's all very simple. If consumers want visible scores, restaurants should comply. "You want to make sure you're serving the public," he says. "Sure, you might slip up..."

The slipups concern restaurateurs and chefs, naturally. "I've never gotten an [equivalent of an] A," admits James Neel, chef-owner of Tramontana. "It's a spotless kitchen, but that doesn't mean I'm going to get an A." He cites problems with the 60-year-old building--chipped paint and gaps in doors--for deductions. "There's a difference between something set in the wrong place momentarily and real systemic issues," agrees Nick Badovinus, who oversees kitchens at Hibiscus, Cuba Libre and Fireside Pies. "But the cream's gonna rise to the top, no matter what the code is."

Or, as Russell Hodges of Iris says of posted grades: "I'm all for them since we scored a 94. But if we scored low... " --Dave Faries

Wet and Wilder

Dallas, we're No. 1. And this time it's not in crime statistics. When the Bahama Beach water park opens in Oak Cliff on May 25, Dallas will be the first city in the country to have an inner-city water park built to serve its community, according to the World Waterpark Association. (A few other cities have urban water parks, but they're designated as tourist attractions, not community parks.) David Busch, the president of HFE-Horizon, which will manage Bahama Beach for the city of Dallas in addition to running Hawaiian Falls locations in North Garland and The Colony, says water parks usually are built where the money already is: in "high-income, high-density" suburbs. In comparison, Bahama Beach's location makes it high-risk, he says.

"From a business standpoint, we shouldn't be doing this," Busch says of his company's management, which will create an "income stream" for the city. Annual guarantees and yearly percentages from the park's gross receipts will go to a city trust fund for its aquatics program, and the money to build the $5.3 million water park was allotted for in the city's 2003 bond program.

The risk isn't the only thing high. This Bahama Beach is also high-profile. "There are cities around the country watching--Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis," Busch says. "They're all saying, 'Man, if this works--and it will work--we can provide amenities to our kids that they can't usually get without getting on the bus and going out to the suburbs where these parks are located.'"

But this attention isn't the reason for the water park's location on six acres inside Thurgood Marshall Park near Highway 67 and South Hampton Road, says Barbara Kindig, the assistant director of Dallas' park and recreation department. The location--inside a city park with space to spare and the existing infrastructure to support the traffic that Bahama Beach will draw--was "a perfect fit," she says. The distinction of being the first is just a bonus, like the projected 150 new jobs it will bring to Oak Cliff. "Is it especially nice to have some new growth in the southern sector of the city of Dallas? Absolutely," she says. But it's more than a first for the record books: "I see this for all of Dallas. " --Shannon Sutlief

Greener Pastures

What does it mean that Jill A. Jordan, assistant city manager in Dallas for the Trinity River project, public works, streets and other biggies, has shown up on the short list for city manager in San Antonio? Maybe something. Maybe not. But insiders warn against swimming too close to the City Hall ship in weeks ahead for fear of top-level jumpers.  

A spokesman for San Antonio Mayor Ed Garza confirms that Jordan is one of five finalists for the job there. Jordan's office referred all questions to Garza and refused further comment.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm says the situation at City Hall, with a vote looming in May on whether to abandon the professional city manager system, may have caused some restlessness among the city's professional city managers.

"I think people's ears are open more," Suhm says. "All the time, people come to us and say, 'Would you be interested in such and such?' And I think people say, 'No, I'm not interested right now.'"

Suhm concedes the response lately may be more like, Hmm, what've you got exactly?

"I think people's ears perk up a little more right now than they normally would. Certainly the discussion about form of government has some part in that, but the other part is that every five or six years we kind of do a turnover anyway."

She says she thinks members of her top staff are probably strong commodities on the job market. "I do think that people could get other jobs rather easily."

She doesn't deny that Jordan's move may prove to be the first of several. "I think you'll see other people, too, in not a real long time."

So that leaves the obvious question. Is Suhm looking?

"No," she says. "Fool that I am. I like what I'm doing. People come talk to me and ask me. But nothing has come along that is quite as interesting as this to me."

Dedication, or grim fascination? --Jim Schutze

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