Restaurants often post a menu in their front window to show potential diners what's cooking in their kitchen. In Hartford, a city ordinance now requires them to show how clean and orderly they keep that kitchen.
Check the restaurant's window next time for a posted notice with a letter grade from the restaurant's most recent health inspection.
The first batch of inspections, the grades now posted, reveal a restaurant culture where the minimum letter grade, a B, can be an embarrassment, as in bad for business.
Au Bon Pain, the bakery-café on Asylum Street, received an otherwise upstanding 88 for a B grade in mid-January and immediately requested a re-inspection. To get an A, it would need to score 90 or higher. Next time, it was nearly perfect, with an A-worthy 98, and satisfied.
"It's a corporate philosophy," says Matt Mizak, area director for the Au Bon Pain chain. "We only want A-plus operations."
Sorry, a straight A is as good as it gets in Hartford. Any score from 80 to 89 gets a B. Below that, a restaurant does not get a grade and must be inspected again within two weeks. With only two grades, some diners might perceive a B as hygienically questionable.
"Initially," says Raul Pino, acting director of the city's health and human services department, "we had a choice of giving a C in some cases so that the B wasn't that bad in the sense that the restaurant has passed. The whole idea is not to punish but to incentivize and stimulate the eateries to come into compliance."
So, Dr. Pino, would you walk into a restaurant that had a B notice in its window?
"That's a good question," he says, before pausing. "Probably . . . probably yes. But I'm not the standard consumer in the sense that I probably know what they got the B for."
When the Environmental Health Division of the city's Department of Health and Human Services inspects a restaurant, it uses a checklist form with more than 100 items, deducting anywhere from one to four points for each violation. A single four-point violation related to hygiene, food preparation, drainage or sewage is an automatic failing grade. Any restaurant with a score below 80 faces an automatic re-inspection. (The state's public health code requires food-service establishments maintain a minimum score of 80 — a B in the Hartford system.)
Sometimes, the offenses are relatively minor. Au Bon Pain, for instance, lost a total of four points on the initial inspection because of inadequate documentation for a "designated alternate" food operator and a training program. It also lost points for using milk crates as shelving, not having a thermometer in a reach-in cooler, storing food on a freezer floor and dust on shelves.
"We didn't have proper paperwork on hand," says Mizak. "So we went back and got all our individuals signed off."
McDonald'son Weston Street lost two points each for unclean food equipment or utensils and unclean food-contact surfaces while earning a 92, an A grade for its front window.
The city inspects each of Hartford's more than 1,000 food-serving businesses, from El Pocito Dulce Mini Market (a B) on High Street and Walgreens (an A) on Washington Street to the upscale Dish Bar & Grill (an A) on Main Street.
"This system seems to have raised the bar," says Dish owner Dan Keller.
Franklin Avenue, for decades one of the city's prime eating destinations, now has a cluster of B-grade restaurants and bakeries: Carbone's, Mozziccato Bakery, Modern Pastry, Casa Mia and Franklin Giant grinder shop. Kashmir, an Indian restaurant on Wethersfield Avenue, Airport Cafe on Ledyard Street and Burger King on Airport Road each failed recent inspections.
Among the A-listers are Vito's by the Park on Trumbull Street, Mckinnons Irish Pub on Asylum Street, City Steam Brewery on Main Street, the USS Chowder Pot on Brainerd Road and Costa Del Sol on Wethersfield Avenue.
Only hospital and school cafeterias, nonprofit organizations and temporary events are exempt. The city has eight registered inspectors and one trainee.
The first inspection at Coach's on Ann Street was a disaster, an off-the-chart 60 on Jan. 10 that warranted a letter from the city demanding a re-inspection within two weeks. The restaurant was cited for uncovered garbage, "vermin or feces" near a dumpster, a smoky, smelly kitchen, a dirty walk-in cooler, "multiple holes in walls" and a jacket on a mixer.