Amato says program could draw more diners to local businesses, but staffing is one concern
When Newton launched its grading system for restaurants back in 2013 with grant funding, it saw a jump in adoption of food safety practices as owners worked to ensure their businesses earned an Excellent or Superior grade. Now that Tewksbury is a foodie destination, with Italian dining, American pub food and a growing range of ethnic restaurants, Board of Health member and restaurateur Susan Amato has proposed a similar grading system for Tewksbury.
The town would be the first in the Merrimack Valley to grade eateries and make this information available to diners. In New Hampshire, citizens can search an inspection database. While some towns, like Longmeadow, do post the results of inspections, Massachusetts overall lags behind on food safety transparency.
We spoke with Amato from the perspective of someone who’s been in the restaurant business for 30 years. Her husband, Vincent, owns Cafe Porto Bello, which has had an “A” under Boston’s system since grading was established.
After she was elected to the BoH in 2020, Amato says she realized that not all local restaurants have the same training in food safety.
“I’m thinking, how do we get everybody on the same page?” she said. “When I spoke to my husband, who’s been in the restaurant business this whole life, he said the grading system works. It works.”
Researchers agree, citing a positive correlation between posted restaurant grades and fewer outbreaks of foodborne illness. Still, such a program requires a ramp-up period as the town formulates guidelines and performs outreach and education. There’s also the possibility that an eatery could lose business if it received less than a top score. And, municipalities with grading programs set up informational websites where diners can find reports; Boston’s is called “The Mayor’s Food Court.” Tewksbury would need to determine how to share scoring information.
As to why more towns don’t adopt grading program, Amato cites managing pushback from restaurants along with the staff effort involved.
“I think towns are afraid to do it because they see it as too much work,” said Amato. “But it doesn’t change their jobs at all because they’re going out there anyway.”
Tewksbury Director of Public Health Shannon Gillis said her office is ascertaining whether a grading program is an attainable goal for the town.
“This is still very much in the research phase,” said Gillis. “In Massachusetts, few small towns have implemented a food grading system.”
She points out that Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t have countywide health departments, which have much larger staffs. In states including Illinois, New Jersey and Ohio, for example, those county-level departments administer restaurant inspection programs.
Tewksbury’s Health Department consists of one full-time and one part-time inspector. And they cover a lot of ground.
“Food is not the only part of our job,” said Gillis, citing responsibilities including housing, semipublic/public pools, recreational camps, beaver investigations, hotels and tanning and body art establishments.
She also echoed a concern mentioned by Board of Health Chair Ray Barry.
“We don’t want to create a food grading system that could potentially be harmful to our food establishments,” she said.
Amato says the program could help health department professionals better focus their efforts. Currently, all restaurants in town are inspected at least annually using a standard grading matrix.
“If you are an “A” for a few years, maybe inspectors go there only every other year,” said Amato. “If you’re a B, they go twice a year. And if you’re a C, they do the same thing they do now — stay on the restaurant until the problems are fixed.”
Some cities use letter grades, usually A, B or C, while others use emojis correlating to Excellent, Good, OK or Needs to Improve. Here’s how Boston’s program works.
There is normally a link or QR code for patrons to find more information on why a restaurant received a particular rating. Towns don’t need to start from scratch; Newton’s Health Department put together a toolkit for other municipalities to use when establishing a grading program, and its website offers resources and information for restaurant owners.
For a program in Tewksbury, Amato says that restaurants that have violations would get a set time to correct the problems, as they do now, so their grades would not be in jeopardy unless they fail to make improvements. Barry suggested not making grades public the first year, giving owners time to understand the system.
Amato said the program would apply to fast food, sandwich and ice cream shops as well as sit-down restaurants but not food trucks, which have their own inspection protocol.
“It’s not going to be grocery stores,” she said. “It’s only where someone comes in to order food.”
She said the feedback she’s gotten on the idea has been positive, and she sees a grading system as a differentiator for Tewksbury that could draw more diners to town. By proudly displaying an “A” rating in their windows, business owners get credit for their hard work.
“I don’t want restaurants to be nervous about it,” she said. “It’s not to shame them. It’s to make them proud of what they have and what they’re doing and bring more people here — the majority of restaurants in this town are phenomenal.”