The Mayor’s Food Court: Good Policy or Bad Business?

The mayor’s office has announced that, by the end of the week, the city’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) will launch a new, higher-tech version of the Mayor’s Food Court website. This, as you may know, is the city’s tell-all database of restaurant health code violations.

Not only will you be able to search for all those nasty citations at your local greasy spoon, but you’ll be able to do it in real time. Inspectors will record violations on computerized tablets, then upload the information immediately to the Web. Obviously, this isn’t making restaurants very happy.

The Massachusetts Restaurant Association told Channel 5 that such instant publication could unfairly tarnish a restaurant’s reputation. What if an inspector gets it wrong? Or what if the public fails to distinguish between the seriousness of a dusty light bulb versus, say, evidence of rat droppings?

The ISD tries to address these concerns with the following disclaimer on the Food Court’s opening page:

The information on the Mayor’s Food Court is designed give consumers an indication of a food establishment’s cleanliness during a random inspection performed by Boston Inspectional Services. The inspection results are designed to give consumers a snap shot in time of an establishment’s operation and cleanliness. It should not be assumed that the inspection results reflect how an establishment always operates.

I think a fair solution to this dilemma would be to allow restaurant owners to comment on their violations, much the way the lets innkeepers respond to negative feedback. “Yeah, that dishwasher blew his nose into the soup,” they could say, “but we fired him and it’ll never happen again.”

I’m not sure how much value this real-time technology really adds from a consumer perspective. (It might, however, do wonders for cutting back on the amount of paper the inspectors use, and I’m all for that).

I’m not going to go online and check an otherwise well-regarded restaurant’s status before calling in a reservation. But the technology is available, apparently, and having suffered through a violent food poisoning episode a couple of months back, I’m all for putting the fear of God into a kitchen staff.

Dining out is an act of trust. Being trustworthy can be time-consuming and expensive. Sometimes you just need a little extra motivation.