CBS 58 Investigates: Restaurant Letter Grades

CBS 58 Investigates: Restaurant Letter Grades

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – Milwaukee city health inspectors expect to be very busy when the Democratic National Convention comes to town. They’ve been training on food safety and security, but they also hope the city’s ongoing experiment with letter grades will keep consumers safe as well.

“Do you guys do any like shellfish, like mussels or anything like that,” asked Health Inspector Lindy Wiedmeyer as she showed CBS 58 Investigates a mock inspection at DanDan.

Her routine has kept pretty constant over the years. She checks temperatures, checks labels, and watches cooks prep food. It’s the end of her inspections that is different now. She scores any violations she’s found and issues the restaurant a grade, either an “A,” “B,” or “C.” The grades have been required in restaurant windows starting in 2019 and reflect how well a restaurant does on its health inspection.

“They have two weeks to become compliant or fix those issues that we found, and then we come back so their grade can change if they correct all of those violations,” said Wiedmeyer.

Milwaukee’s health inspections will be compared against Madison’s for the next three years to see if there’s a significant difference between the two. In 2018, out of nearly 1,200 restaurant inspections, 84 percent earned an “A,” 14 percent earned a “B,” and only 2 percent earned a “C.”

“We have a reduction of 2.5 percent in the number of CDC risk factors and violations today compared to in 2017, before the system was implemented,” said Deputy Commissioner Claire Evers.

She said restaurant violations were rising before the grading system was put into place, and believes attitudes have changed with grades in the windows.

“Operators are actually concerned about their inspections and they’re not just taking it as the cost of doing business,” said Evers.

There’s still work to be done. Milwaukee health inspectors routinely cite restaurants for hand washing, temperature, and cross contamination violations, but in advance of the Democratic National Convention, Evers said restaurants have made real improvements.

“Just the fact that we have more compliance is what’s really important,” said Evers.

But until the full data gets reported in 2023, the Wisconsin Restaurant Association isn’t so sure.

“A restaurant is either safe enough to be open, or it should be closed,” said Association Vice President Susan Quam.

She said the WRA wants the grades taken down permanently. Quam had suggested pushing back the current inspection experiment with Madison to after the DNC, but that suggestion wasn’t implemented.

“Everyone knows when an A is better than a B, and the nuances of what gets you between those two, you know, can be very thin,” said Quam.

She said the stakes are too high for restaurant owners to have anything but an “A” displayed in their windows. Diners CBS 58 spoke with during lunch in Milwaukee’s Third Ward seem to prove her point.

“If it was something I’ve been to and I liked it, (eating at a restaurant with a “B”) yes, but if it was something new, probably not,” said Collette Maile.

“Yeah, probably a “B,” a “C’s” pushing it,” said Andrew Warenda.

“If there were A's and B's, (on the same street) I wouldn't go to a “C” no,” said Katie Cooney.

“I think you really have to be a disaster to get a “B”, said DanDan co-owner Dan Jacobs.

Jacobs is split on the grades. On one hand, he said customers should know how restaurants perform on their health inspections. On the other, he believes lower grades scare people off.

“I think if I saw a “B” in a window, I wouldn’t go eat there,” said Jacobs.

If there is no difference between Milwaukee and Madison at the end of the three year experiment, the grades may be taken down.

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