How to make the grade in restaurant health inspections

How to make the grade in restaurant health inspections BACKGROUND Unscheduled inspections are conducted by trained public restaurant health inspections officers in the United States. When they are aware that “big brother” is watching them, …

How to make the grade in restaurant health inspections


Unscheduled inspections are conducted by trained public restaurant health inspections officers in the United States. When they are aware that “big brother” is watching them, people tend to “clean up”. A bad inspection from one of these health officers could result in thousands of dollars in lost sales.

Executives in corporate America understand the importance and urgency of food safety. They view it as a way to protect their brands and have the resources and management to make it a priority. Even though smaller businesses understand the importance of food safety, they often make poor choices due to their limited resources and manpower. This is often because they are only interested in food safety after a negative event, such as a low health inspection grade.

This is the group of entrepreneurs I want to see change. Their lack of concern for food safety and sanitation will show in their employees. These entrepreneurs invite the health department to take any action they believe will hurt their business if their employees aren’t trained and checked via self-inspection on a regular basis.

1) Employee training and self-inspection are two ways they can prepare to be ready for inspections by the health department

2) What inspectors look for in a health inspection.

3) How to deal with a poor health inspection grade.

Note about this article: The Food and Drug Administration issues the FDA Food Code. This is a science-based, scientifically-based code that recommends food safety regulations. While the FDA recommends that all states, cities and counties adopt the FDA Food Code (which is a science-based code that provides recommendations for food safety regulations), it cannot force them to do so. Many health departments also issue their own regulations. There are minor differences among the regulations, even though there is a lot of overlap between them. Although the details of this article may not be accurate for every town or city, readers should be able modify what they see here to suit their needs.


Before I get into more detail about the topic, let me say this: If I had to pick one idea that will have the most impact on your efforts to improve food safety and attain a top grade in health inspection, it would be this: Having food safety affect employees’ compensation is the best way to demonstrate that food safety is an important part of their job.

Restaurants may be able to offer food safety bonuses. These bonuses can fluctuate depending on how they perform in inspections conducted by the health department or third-party auditor/consultant inspections. Management should maintain a high grade and accept no less than that. A lower score could disqualify them from receiving a bonus.

Employers can show them that food safety is an important part of their job by affecting their compensation.

Today, most restaurants set financial goals. If these goals are met incentive bonuses are offered to both the front- and back-of house managers. It is possible to incorporate food safety in such a system. However, I have never heard of anyone doing it.

Consider these factors when training your staff restaurant health inspections

Before I get into the factors, let me say that the most common mistake small operators make in training is not to start training their employees. They fail to properly qualify their employees for their food safety knowledge in the interview process. (e.g., are they familiar with when gloves should be worn and how long they need to wash their hands? etc.). It can be difficult to learn bad food safety habits, so it is better to hire people who are already in the right place.

Previous food safety knowledge — Managers/chefs should be aware that many restaurant workers have a low level of food safety awareness. Your staff may not have ever been taught how to safely handle food.

Due to school system cuts in science and home economics classes, home-economy and home health are often left to the home. Sometimes, there is not one home to teach basic food-handling skills. Restaurants are often employers for first-time job applicants who are usually very young, and sometimes still in highschool. This means that the responsibility for teaching food safety rests on the shoulders the restaurant manager/chef. ServSafe and other food safety classes have become more popular in recent years. This is a significant improvement on the lack of them in the past.

Training should be given immediately upon hire. Procedures for food safety and sanitation operations should also be taught. It’s easier to train employees on procedures right away. However, introducing this information after employees have worked for some time may cause a negative attitude.

Part time workers — Because practice makes perfect, it may take these workers longer to be proficient in their jobs. Part-time workers can be addressed by managers through ongoing training.

Foreign workers – A lack of English reading or writing skills can cause confusion and inability to follow instructions correctly. Also, note that many restaurant staff cannot read or write in their native language. Not all countries have the same food safety standards as the United States. These issues should be addressed as soon as possible.

High turnover of staff — Restaurants experience a high turnover rate for many reasons. Most young workers consider a job in a restaurant to be an entry-level position, the starting salary for an unskilled worker is low, while some jobs, such as dishwashing and building maintenance, are not desirable. You should always be ready to train new employees as your staff moves on to better opportunities.

Training is not free. Most companies will train their first or second generation of employees before employee turnover and commitment decrease. Keep in mind that the cost of staff training and development could outweigh the benefits if there is a foodborne illness outbreak.

Specifying responsibilities Start with a job description that clearly outlines what your employees should do in regards to food safety. They will usually sign a document that states they understand the expectations.


The certifications mentioned above are just the beginning of learning about food safety. Continuous self-inspection is a way to put this knowledge into practice.

Many health departments offer self-inspection tools on their websites. You can also use the self-inspection form provided by the local health department to guide you if your local department does not offer them. These forms are not available in all places, so some restaurants make their own.

It would be too large to reproduce a self-inspection form of two-and-a half pages here. However, to give you an idea of what such forms are, many of the contents covered by professional certifications mentioned earlier relate to inspections (both self inspections and inspections by health departments). A later section of this article, entitled “What health inspectors look for,” lists items that should be available for inspection.


Restaurant owners of all sizes view a health inspector visit as an inconvenience, a disruption during the day, rather than an opportunity to learn. Many restaurant owners hate the health department. It is a bad attitude, but it helps explain why many restaurants fear health inspections. Unannounced inspections can be scary, but you will not have to worry if your staff is well-trained and has a history of routine self examinations.


There are no rules about how often a restaurant should be inspected, but these are my observations based upon my experience working in food safety in California, New York, Maryland, Washington, DC.

  • The more complicated the operation (e.g. large facilities that contain multiple protein sources and multiple food processing such as cooking, reheating and making sushi), the more frequently the health department will visit (usually two to three times per year).
  • The health department may visit a small coffee shop, retail outlet, or bakery that does not provide major protein food preparation once a year.
  • You can expect to be inspected up four times per year if you receive consistently high B-level or C level inspection scores.

The health department will inspect your establishment if someone complains about foodborne illnesses or substandard operations. The health department must investigate all complaints.

Your inspector

You will likely work with the same inspector repeatedly because they are usually assigned to one particular area. This can be a blessing as you get to know the person’s way of inspecting and what they look for. However, if you don’t get along well with the inspector this could prove to be a curse.

Remember that inspectors are more likely to be biased in larger areas, which can lead to more inspectors. If you feel your inspector is not fair, you can contact your local health department to request another inspector. My experience is that most requests are accommodated by the health department. After the inspection is complete, you would need to make the request. You should also be prepared to pay for the second inspection. I have seen charges between $300 and $500. In such cases, the original inspection will still be valid. However, the new inspector may arrive within a few days to issue a new report.


The inspection results are combined into one grade. However, the health department grading system can vary from one jurisdiction to another. These systems may be in the form of letter grades or a point system. Sometimes, violations can result in fines. You should be familiar with the points penalties and the system you are operating under. These points will determine the performance of your restaurant during inspections.

How to handle a low grade

The inspection grade shouldn’t surprise anyone if the manager was present during the visit. What do you do if the inspector gives you a lower rating?

You should take the inspection results seriously. You should train everyone to work in the areas described in the inspection report. Make sure you repair and maintain the property for the long-term. The first step in correcting problems is to create a prioritized list. Because repairs and maintenance can take time and money, it’s best to begin with the most important ones like missing or cracked floor tiles, grout, fan guards that are dirty, torn gaskets, or repairing equipment that is damaged.

A re-inspection will be requested if there are enough violations that the restaurant is unable to maintain or earn a top rating. This type of inspection usually costs in the range of “hundreds and thousands of dollars”. In the meantime, you might be offered a “Grade pending” alternative. This gives you a specified amount of time to fix the violations and displays your inspection grade. This is a great alternative to a lower-than-top rating. It’s also easier to explain to food bloggers and guests. You must ensure that all issues are addressed immediately after scheduling a re-inspection.

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