Making the grade: Health department aims to drop restaurant demerit system

San Antonio set to adopt letter grades

SAN ANTONIO – It may soon be easier for diners in the Alamo City to know exactly how restaurants have done on health inspections. After months of study and consultation, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District will soon take a sweeping plan to overhaul the scoring system to the City Council for consideration. 

The current demerit system, often viewed as confusing, would be replaced with a 100-point scale and letter grade. Both would be posted on a placard inside or outside of the food establishment. Metro Health tells KSAT the proposal is modeled after scoring methods already in use in cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Diego. 

“The advantage is, it makes the score the restaurant earned more visible to the public,” said Steve Barscewski, who oversees the health department staff tasked with performing inspections at over 8,000 food establishments in San Antonio.

The scoring overhaul borrows heavily from academic grading. A food establishment with an inspection score between 90-100 would receive an A. Scores of 80-89 would garner a B but a restaurant scoring 79 or lower would earn a C. Barscewski said the grading using A, B or C only is consistent with other cities. 

Asked if a restaurant scoring a 40 would receive a placard with a C on it, Barscewski told KSAT, “It would say 40/C. There is certainly a strong possibility, with a score that low, they would probably be closed for health violations.”

Restaurant customers who were shown examples of the new placards, featuring a large number and letter grade, gave mixed reviews. “I like it. It will be easier to see behind the counter,” said one diner. “I’ll only eat at restaurants with As and Bs,” said another. A woman, seated at the same table, added, “It seems like if a restaurant fails, it should be an F.” 

The San Antonio Restaurant Association is the plan's most vocal critic to date. In a statement to KSAT, the association asserts, “We are confident that we already have a strong system in place.” The association goes on to list recommendations including a switch to a score based on a 100-point scale that was not a part of the original proposal. 

Metro Health adopted that recommendation. “I think we’ve worked well with our stakeholders and that’s very important to the health department to be able to sit down at the table, listen to them and come up with a system that’s going to work for everybody,” Barscewski said. The department even dropped plans to require the placards be posted within 5 feet of an establishment’s front door. 

Restaurant owner Mike Behrens, of Green Vegetarian Cuisine, says their new placard will be front and center anyway. “Customers may not have looked at the old reports with that tiny score in the corner of the page but now they’ll look at that big A. We’ll be shooting for As,” Behrens tells KSAT.

The proposed system also gives businesses an opportunity to raise their grade one level if they correct all violations and undergo a new inspection. 

Steve Barscewski said the new scoring system is set to go before a City Council committee on Monday. He’s hoping for council approval by March and having the system in place by April on a voluntary basis. 

In anticipation of the scoring overhaul, health inspectors have been handing out new guidelines to restaurants during routine inspections. One is simply titled How to get an “A.” 

Barscewski says multiple information sessions will be scheduled to educate local restaurant owners and managers on the new system. He also said the outreach to the food service industry includes translating important guidelines into Spanish and Chinese.

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