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Thursday December 2nd

Orange County restaurant inspection ratings to appear on Yelp pages

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In an effort to make inspection ratings more accessible, Orange County announced Sept. 16 that it would begin posting its health inspection ratings to Yelp. A restaurant’s most recent letter grade now appears in the right-hand column of its Yelp page.

Victoria Hudson, an environmental health specialist for the Orange County Health Department, conducts inspections in Carrboro and parts of Chapel Hill and UNC. She said more access to information is beneficial to consumers.

“People should be able to use these scores to assign risk,” Hudson said. “The letter ‘A’ does not necessarily give you the full picture as much as the list of comments does.”

Clicking on the inspection score on Yelp reveals more information on previous inspections, including the dates and the number of health code violations found.

In May, for example, an inspection found pink and black mold in the ice machine at R&R Grill, though mold in ice machines was not an uncommon violation at restaurants in 2013 findings. The restaurant lost 1.5 points — a half deduction — and received a 98.5 total score.

Ross Moll, the owner of R&R Grill, said employees cleaned the machine after it was discovered. The machine is cleaned weekly and inspected to prevent the problem.

“I think they do a good job coming down on people who are not up to snuff on things, and they definitely work with people to get things fixed,” Moll said about the Health Department.

Bandido’s Mexican Cafe also had mold in its ice machine recently, and an inspector observed an employee placing food on plates with bare hands in July. The restaurant lost 1.5 points each for those violations and scored 95.5 overall.

Tony Sustaita, owner of Bandido’s, said the inspections help reinforce safe practices.

“Obviously the policy is to be clean all the time, but people mess up once in a while,” he said. “Any issue that is brought up in an inspection is addressed immediately.”

Both Moll and Sustaitia said displaying scores in restaurants and on Yelp helps consumers make decisions.

“I think the only ones who would be concerned would be the ones with negative scores,” Sustaita said. “We’ve had pretty good scores, so from our standpoint it doesn’t make a difference.”

Stacy Shelp, spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Department, said the county decided to put inspection scores on Yelp because of the amount of traffic the site receives. As of June 30, the site had a monthly average of 138 million unique visitors to its website.

Wake County partnered with Yelp in October 2013 and was one of the first places in the country to do so — behind San Francisco and Louisville, Ky.

Bill Greeves, spokesman for Wake County, said it was an easy way to provide information to the public.

Inspection scores are public information and are already required to be posted in restaurants and in an online database provided by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health.

“For many years, we had the scores posted on our website, but it was a little buried and the database was difficult to navigate,” Greeves said. “But everyone knows Yelp.”

UNC freshman Alessandra Sacchi said she does not pay attention to inspection scores, for the most part.

“I don’t really pay attention to it at the dining hall because I feel like I should blindly trust that since they are serving thousands of students,” Sacchi said. “For restaurants, if it is kind of sketchy when I walk in, then I’ll take a look, but normally, I don’t pay much attention to it.”

Sacchi said she would be more likely to use Yelp’s mobile app than its website to look up scores.

Greeves said he thought it was important for Wake County to keep local restaurants in the loop during the process to minimize resistance.

“The general response was that we were already doing the inspections and providing them online, and to take that extra step is posting a badge of honor for a good score or providing more incentive to improve if it’s a low score,” he said.

Restaurants are scored on a 100-point scale, and their operating permits are revoked if they score below a 70.

Hudson said she is responsible for inspecting more than 90 different food establishments, including food trucks. Nine of those are on UNC’s campus — including Alpine Deli & Cafe and Rams Head and Top of Lenoir dining halls. She inspects 12 to 16 facilities per week.

Food vendors are inspected one to four times per year, depending on how much food preparation is done at the location, Hudson said. Most restaurants are inspected three or four times annually.

“We do not schedule inspections or give notice,” she said. “If an establishment has a score below an A, it can request a regrade, which we are required to respond to. But that doesn’t guarantee it improves.”

A review by The Daily Tar Heel of 1,277 inspections in Orange County between September 2013 and August 2014 showed that no restaurant received a grade in the 70s. Only three restaurants scored in the 80s — Yum Yum in Hillsborough, Courtyard by Marriott in Chapel Hill and Carolina 1663 in Chapel Hill .

No restaurant in Chapel Hill or Carrboro has had its permit revoked in the past five years, Shelp said.

Inspectors across the state use a standardized form to enforce the state’s food code, which went into effect in September 2012 based on standards from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Properly cleaning and washing hands has a four-point value — the highest of any single inspection item. One of the lowest-value items is the cleanliness of bathrooms, which is worth one point.

UNC junior Jesse Zhu said he did not know he could look up scores on Yelp but would probably not do so.

“If you’ve been (to a restaurant) before, you know what it’s like and have a general idea,” he said. “I think it’s a general reflection, but when it comes down to whether a 94 is better than a 93, then I think it’s up to interpretation.”

The Spotted Dog has received a perfect score on its last seven inspections. Linda Bourne, Spotted Dog owner, said it is important for restaurants and health inspectors to make a concerted effort to keep the customers safe.

“We take their teaching very seriously, and we work very hard to be safe and earn such high scores,” Bourne said.

But some restaurant employees acknowledge there are potential problems with inspection scoring practices.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant in the U.S. where I’ve seen a low score,” said a Breadmen’s employee who asked to remain anonymous for job security reasons.

“I don’t think the system is accurate, but I think the fault is less in accuracy and more in the fact that I’m not really even sure what a 100 percent score even entails.”

The employee said it is important for restaurant employees to collectively prevent issues as much as possible while maintaining service.

“Every restaurant has its underbelly,” the employee said.

On Breadmen’s most recent health inspection Sept. 11, the restaurant earned a 97.

“When coordinating the staff and distributing tasks in a way that’s efficient and manageable, I think it’s natural that some of the directives and regulations fall through the cracks,” the employee said. “While the group as a whole takes good care of the restaurant, there’s no way you can control every individual.”

Bourne said the county’s health inspections are thorough, but standards can never be high enough when it comes to keeping the public safe.

“Ideally, if they could hire 50 more health inspectors and inspect every restaurant more frequently, that would be great,” Bourne said. “But I cannot say enough about the job the people who work there do for us and keeping everyone safe.”

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