(Spring 2012) Data Driven Interactive Journalism Complex storytelling using data

The Customer Knows Best: Revision

By Carla Astudillo & 
Colin Weatherby

When the city decided to implement the restaurant grading system two years ago, supporters of the initiative applauded the effort as a method to give “consumers more information that will help make our restaurants safer and cleaner.” Two years later, it is still not apparent what effect the program has had on New York City eaters or their spending habits.

The New York Restaurant Association fought the decision in court with the thinking that the grades would only mislead and misinform customers.

The connection between restaurant grades and customer satisfaction in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in not obvious, and it became apparent that grades in these neighborhoods do not seem to have any measurable ability to predict the popularity of a restaurant. The map above lists all of the restaurants in this area and how they fare on the customer rating site Yelp. Many of the restaurants with consistently low marks from the city receive glowing reviews from a very satisfied clientele.

How Do the Restaurant Grades Work?

Every year, the department sends health inspectors to examine about 2,400 restaurants. The inspectors visit the restaurants unannounced and they have unlimited access to the facilities while inside checking for violations in food handling, cleanliness and pest control.Each violation ranges in severity and correlates to a point system based on the health risk to the public. If a kitchen is contaminated by liquid waste, it will receive 10 points. If lighting is inadequate, two points. Point totals are also dependent on the level of negligence: one bowl of beef bourguignon left out below 140 degrees Fahrenheit is seven points. Four bowls gets 10 points.

At the end of the inspection, the points are added up and the restaurant is given a final score. If the tally is 13 points or less, the restaurant is awarded an A rating. If the total is between 14 and 27 points, it gets a B. More than 28 violations, and the inspector will dish out the dreaded C.

The B or C grade isn’t final until the inspector comes back for a re-inspection one week later. This process time allows the restaurant a chance to improve sanitary conditions. After re-inspection, a final grade card is issued. If the restaurant receives a B or C, the restaurant gets a placard that says “Grade Pending.”The restaurant has a choice to display the actual grade or the “Grade Pending” placard until it is able to contest the grade at a Department of Health hearing. If the ruling is upheld, the restaurant must display the grade prominently in the front window. Any restaurant that receives a C will undergo compliance inspections every 30 days until conditions improve or the DOH decides to shutter the establishment.

A restaurant closed by the DOH is not allowed to reopen until it receives less than 28 violations upon further inspection.


All data was gathered from the NYC Open Data site. The source of the data set is the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. It was last updated March 30, 2012. The Yelp star ratings were gathered from Yelp.com on April 16.

The picture in the banner is licensed under Creative Commons:

Restaurant grading methodology can be found at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene:

How We Score the Grades
Self-Inspection Worksheet
Restaurant Grading FAQ

One Response to The Customer Knows Best: Revision

  1. ahickman says:


    When you’re trying to troubleshoot HTML, especially in a complicated setup like a blog post inside of a CMS, Firebug is your friend. It revealed this line in the CSS for the site:

    table, td, th {
    vertical-align: middle;

    The vertical alignment set in the CSS is overriding overrides your manual settings in the table’s HTML. You can override CSS with CSS though: try adding this to the column’s tag: