The city's controversial restaurant grading system has been a source of frustration for restaurants all over the city, but according to a study by the Chinatown Business Improvement District, restaurants in their bustling neighborhood have it harder compared with elsewhere in the five boroughs. Only 51% of restaurants in the area earned an A grade from the Department of Health, compared to 80% of restaurants elsewhere in the city, Crains reports. With some New Yorkers squeamish about a less-than-perfect grade—not to mention our mayor urging us to actively avoid lower scoring eateries—the revenue trickledown can be substantial. With the nearly 300 restaurants in the neighborhood accounting for 40% of the business revenue, disappearing customers could have a disastrous effect on the area.
Patrick Kwan, Communictions and Development Director at the Chinatown BID, tells us multiple factors are at play in the grade disparity, including language barriers that result in confusion over inspection reports and an unwillingness to appeal poor inspections because of the time commitment involved. To combat that, the BID began efforts to help restaurant owners navigate the treacherous DOH waters, including workshops, mock inspections and bilingual materials to help establish a baseline. "Many of the workshop attendees did not understand the process for appealing their grades," Kwan explained. "They don’t see the point of taking a day off work to challenge the violations."
Kwan also believes lower grades result from misunderstandings the DOH may have regarding the cuisines served in the neighborhood, a problem the BID hopes to challenge.
A dim sum parlor was fined for mouse droppings, but the restaurateur vehemently maintained they were tea leaves; a vegetarian restaurant was told they have to handle their faux soy-based “meats” just like real meat; and we know of several restaurants that were given fines for roasted ducks and other roast meats that are not traditionally served hot.
Through the workshops and other measures, the BID hopes restaurant owners will see the damaging results lower grades can have, not just in the form of less foot traffic. "One of the things [our] survey has demonstrated to [owners] is the lower their grade, the more fines they pay," said Kwan. "We've helped many of them understand that it’s not just hanging a sign on the window, it has real financial implications from fines, to the number of inspections, and to the perception of the cleanliness of the restaurants and the larger Chinatown community."
The organization estimates that $600,000 were spent paying fines in the neighborhood last year. With 40% of households living below the poverty line in Chinatown, that can mean a serious bite out of the area's revenue.