Berkeley may join County and post food inspection scores

Berkeley food facilities like Phil’s Sliders may be required to post health inspection results in the future. Photos: Natalie Orenstein

Under a color-coded grading system implemented in July, restaurants in Alameda County – but not in Berkeley – are now required to post green, yellow, or red placards in their windows to display food safety inspection results.

Berkeley is one of four cities in the state with an independent environmental health department and it makes its own rules regarding restaurant inspections. But with the implementation of the easy-to-understand county system, Berkeley officials are considering the adoption of a similar program to make things uniform.

“It’s something that the rest of the jurisdictions are thinking about, to have some consistency within the Bay Area,” said Manuel Ramirez, Berkeley environmental health director. “There’s no sense of a timeline at this point, but it is being discussed.”

County officials say the visibility of the inspection results and the accessible color code will empower consumers and encourage food facilities to meet safety standards. Some Berkeley restaurateurs say they would be proud to post a placard in their windows.

“We’ve had flying colors in every inspection,” said Alicia Ellis, manager of Phil’s Sliders, a hamburger spot that arrived on Shattuck Ave. about a year ago. “If you’re handling your business the way you should be, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.” A green card in the window might attract customers and inspire neighboring businesses to keep up, Ellis said.

“I’m in favor of transparency,” said Marcia Masse, owner of Masse’s Pastries on north Shattuck Ave. “It encourages high standards and good food handling practices. We have nothing to hide.”

Next door to Masse’s, Saul’s Delicatessen similarly receives consistent good marks during inspections, but co-owner Karen Adelman has a different take on the county’s new rule.

“I think it’s more complex than a color code,” Adelman said. Under the county’s system, red indicates that a facility is set to be shut down, yellow signifies two or more major violations of the health code, and green means a business had no major violations. A follow-up inspection after a yellow placard is issued results in a promotion to a green card or a suspension of a facility’s health permit, but the yellow card may be visible in the window for up to a week.

Adelman said there is a wide range of violations that can result in a yellow card, and a temporary or harmless mistake may permanently deter customers.

“Customers aren’t stupid,” she said. “They can walk into a bathroom or a kitchen and smell or see how clean it is. They can ask to see certain information. There is already a stringent health code and I personally don’t think it’s constructive to have a color in your window.”

George Wendt, an Oakland resident who works and eats in Berkeley, said he would be unlikely to walk into a restaurant with a yellow placard and thinks he might miss out on a good—and benign—meal if the City adopted the system.

“It’s misleading. Any information that doesn’t come with a definitive definition of what the colors mean can screw over the company as well as the consumer,” Wendt said.

Employees prepare food at Phil’s Sliders, which had a clean inspection.

Other consumers say they deserve easy access to inspection results.

Over a deli sandwich at Saul’s, Berkeley resident Sterling Brown said he thinks posting the scores should be mandatory. “As a consumer and a tax payer, you should even be able to look into a kitchen,” he said. “You have nothing to hide if you’re doing the right thing.”

When he visits San Diego, Brown sometimes spends a few extra dollars on the “chef’s table” option, where customers at higher end restaurants can eat in the kitchen. San Diego and Los Angeles counties both require food facilities to post A, B, or C letter grades in their windows. In Northern California, Sacramento County has used a color code since 2007.

In Berkeley, where facilities are inspected one to four times a year, consumers can enter individual restaurants in an online database and find a summary of the inspection results. Checkmarks reveal whether a facility had a major or minor violation in five different categories, and as soon as the violation is corrected the mark is removed. Some results are temporarily missing because the City recently converted to a new data management system and is not finished entering information, Ramirez said.

Nicki Rivieccio, co-owner of PiQ on Shattuck Ave., used to work under the color system in Sacramento, but doubts the program would change business dynamics in Berkeley, where customers may not be fixated on cleanliness.

“I think it gives customers some sense of safety and confidence, but I haven’t noticed that people really care,” he said. “It’s Berkeley!”

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  • Bryan Garcia

    I’m from LA County and I liked the letter grade system they use there. I was surprised that there wasn’t a similar system in place here, when I moved to the Bay Area.

  • Anonymous

     I had exactly the same experience and think LA’s system works really well (granted, I haven’t lived there in almost 20 years).  There was a restaurant I’d eat at all the time that had a “B” grade which had something to do with the kind of dishwasher they had and was eventually replaced when they could afford it. I don’t think just three colors allows for that kind of subtlety.

  • David D.

    I was born and raised in San Diego and thought the A-B-C ratings system was normal. (I often traveled to LA when going out of town, and they have the system there too.) Imagine my surprise when I moved to the supposed culinary capital of the state (SF/Berkeley) and not a single rating was posted. Welcome to the 20th century, Northern California.

  • Grumpy McGrumpyPants

    “Berkeley is one of four cities in the state with an independent environmental health department”

    Do we believe Berkeley has “safer” food than the rest of the state?  If not, its time to CUT THE FAT and let those employees find useful employment elsewhere.

  • Anon

    What color code is Rogue Cafe posting?  Pirate flag black?

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Nicki Rivieccio, co-owner of PiQ on Shattuck Ave., used to work under the color system in Sacramento, but doubts the program would change business dynamics in Berkeley, where customers may not be fixated on cleanliness.
    “I think it gives customers some sense of safety and confidence, but I haven’t noticed that people really care,” he said. “It’s Berkeley!”

    Shoot, and I liked PiQ and recommended it to several people.  
    I care about cleanliness in food preparation, Nicki Rivieccio.  Please reconsider the Berkeley exceptionalism and I’ll consider spending money at PiQ again.

  • berkopinionator

    We pay for the inspections, and the results should be in the windows.

    Berkeley restaurant results are online:

    Phil’s had a good inspection result.  However, the employees in the pictures (like just about every other food prep employee in Berkeley) are not wearing hats or hair nets.
    California Health and Safety Code states:

    113969. (a) Except as specified in subdivision (b), all food employees preparing, serving, or handling food or utensils shall wear
    hair restraints, such as hats, hair coverings, or nets, which are designed and worn to effectively keep their hair from contacting
    nonprepackaged food, clean equipment, utensils, linens, and unwrapped single-use articles.
    (b) This section does not apply to food employees, such as counter staff who only serve beverages and wrapped or prepackaged foods,
    hostesses, and wait staff, if they present a minimal risk of contaminating nonprepackaged food, clean equipment, utensils, linens,
    and unwrapped single-use articles.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think he meant it the way it came across, he’s a good guy. 

  • Anonymous

     Right on McGrumpyPants.  I can’t find what the other three cities are but I’ll bet you a quarter they are bankrupt or targets of large-scale fraud and corruption charges.

  • Charles_Siegel

    New York has the A,B,C system, and restaurants sometimes try to conceal the results.  For example, if they have to post a B, they will post a sign next to it in the same font, so the entire thing reads: “Be our guest for a great meal.”

  • PragmaticProgressive

    I hope you’re right.  It’s… fatiguing to continually hear “it’s Berkeley!” as the catchall excuse for corner cutting.

  • Bill N

    Who will do the inspections in Berkeley?  Is there savings to be had?

  • Bill N

    I’ve eaten some great food at B restaurants in NYC. 

  • TizziLish

    do you seriously think Berkeley city government is spending a lot of fat on the environmental health department?

  • TizziLish

    I have eaten at Phil’s Sliders several times — I love their little burgers but, alas, I can’t do the buns anymore (diabetes) so I’m done with Phil’s. ..  but I have wondered, every time I used to go in there, why the food preparers did not cover their hair. I don’t know local laws so thanks berkopionater for  giving us the code for hair covering. I have literally stood waiting for food and wondered why food workers in Berkeley (at Philz is where these thoughts have taken place) didn’t have to cover their hair like I used to have to do when I worked in the cafeteria in h.s. We teens hated the hairnets but then you just got used to them.

    I get the workers shown in the Philz photos think pullling their hair up is enough but a pony tail does not protect hair from falling into food. A hat does the job. A rubberband is not hair covering.
    Tsk tsk, Phil’s. Get it together, buy hats or hairnets.And can someone answer: would the health inspector cite a restaurant for food preparer’s wh do not cover their hair?  Phil’s gets good ratings, what is the downside of violating the hair covering?

    Has anyone found a piece of hair in restaurant meal? It tends to put you off the whole meal, right?

  • berkopinionator

     Good question about the reason hair nets or hats are required by state law. 

    One answer: Staph infections.

  • bgal4


  • Having an independent environmental health department, does Berkeley get any funding from Alameda County to run the department, or is Berkeley just spending extra money on top of what they would otherwise get for free from the County?

  • Completely_Serious

     Agreed!  Why does Berkeley have to have its own health department and own mental health department?  Isn’t the county department good enough?  Oh, wait!  More SEIU members!

  • Charles_Siegel

     Why does Berkeley have to have its own health department and own mental health department?

    Health Department: I don’t know.
    Mental Health Department: The answer should be obvious.

  • Anon

    I am not sure, but I am picturing the food inspector like Donald Sutherland in the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”.  Remember the opening scenes of that film where he discovers something gross in a soup being served in a pretenious French restaurant in SF and comes out to find his old car vandalized by some of the low-life kitchen staff.

    Anyone read Kitchen Confidential?

  • Brucehate

    A color system is just stupid. Typical Berkeley to go against the ” system”.

  • batardo

    If the comment is directed at city employees generally that’s one debate (YMCA memberships, et. al.), but I did have the occasion to work with the Environmental Health folks last year on an issue in our neighborhood and got the impression they have a lot on their plate.  Like any city agency I had to find a way to impress upon them the urgency of my issue, but they did see it through to a satisfactory conclusion once I got their attention. 

  • il batardo

    Not sure the answer to the hair question, but it’s occurred to me as well. 

    Now as for Philz, I once sent a note to Hugh (the owner)  with some observation about employees handling money and food, and he was SUPER responsive, I mean he totally got the issue and was appreciative of the input.   And honestly that was my intention, not to make noise about it but to give him a heads up before it hurt his business, because they had just opened and I wanted them to be successful.  Anyway, I’m not surprised they have a good record because the owner cares (as does his staff I imagine) and he’s on top of things. 

    Now .. some other restaurants around town .. not so much.  I’m tired of making my dining choices based on past bowel discomfort, so I’m all for maximum transparency in the inspection process.  Yeah the web site is out there, but it’s sufficiently obscure that I don’t think most establishments give it much thought. (btw check out Sushi Ichiban if you happen to be browsing the site, maybe they got their act together but for a while their inspections were pretty horrific.)

    Scarlet letter treatment .. now that gets their attention. 

  • guest

    Whatever the system is, numbers, letters or colors, I don’t understand why it is not posted and clearly visible.  I enjoy eating out some times and this information would be very helpful.

  • guest

    You are welcome to continue eating at B/yellow restaurants and I likely will too but it is information that all customers should be aware of so we can make an informed decision.  Some might choose to stay away and some might not care but we need to know so we can decide what is best for each of us and our families.

  • bgal4

    I too have first hand experience, the county agency solved the problem, but we had to work with Berkeley to get the homeowners with a sewage link breeding mosquitoes  to make the repair.

    Ask the dept what percent of their complaints are neighbor disputes. I recall the number was substantial, more harassment than legitimate issues.

  • Hugh

    Hi There,
    This is Hugh the owner of Phil’s Sliders.   I am going to get hats asap for everyone at the restaurant.   This is a good reminder, and thank you. :)

  • guest

    Only 3 cities in CA have independent health departments: Berkeley, Pasadena, and Long Beach. All other jurisdictions are covered by County Public Health Departments (environmental health is usually a division under public health). I’m not sure how the Berkeley Public Health Dept is funded. They might get some money from the State Dept of Public Health. Maybe they get to keep a bit more of taxes that would normally go to the County. If others have info, please post.  

  • berkopinionator

     Thank you Hugh!  Hopefully you will be setting a new trend among Berkeley restaurants!

  • Bill N

    Careful, the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (one of the best Sci Fi ever) was with Keven McCarthy from 1956

  • Cammy

    I agree. I think if you ask they have to show you their report, but how many diners will do this? Well, Berkeley has yet to ban plastic bags, and that’s an even bigger shocker.

  • Cammy

    Well said!

  • Cammy

    The customer at Sauls is exactly right, and the last time I went to Sauls at  the “to go” counter, I noticed the girl handling my food (without gloves) and then go to the cash register to handle money and back and forth. I don’t work for the health department, but I thought the handling of money and food should be kept separate. And I would also like to see food preparation with hair nets (although I don’t know if that’s code)

  • Anon

    Thanks, Hugh.  Never been in before (not due to hats/no hats), but I am impressed with your responsiveness to your clientele which certainly bespeaks good quality food!

  • Anon

    Thanks for the reminder.  You’re right, of course.  The original novel the films are based upon is not easy to find today.  While far from a masterpiece (the films are much better), it’s a quick and (today) amusing time piece.  The novel version is set in Mill Valley & Marin Co. rather than SF and there are some siginificant plot twists which differ from the film versions, especially the ending.

  • Chrisjuricich

    Yah, why would you stopgoing to PiQ because of his comments. He merely said people in Berkeley don’t care that much about cleanliness–and his ‘grade’ meets top standards, so think it over again. I ate at PiQ regularly when I worked in downtown Berkeley.

    I appreciate the service that health codes apply for public protection even as I realize that it is largely cosmetic–I had to get my California Food Handler certification for a job I recently got–passing the test was ridiculously easy because the online test allowed the test taker to find the answers online!

    It’s a useful tool to have to acquaint one’s self with what temperatures are safe for which meats, etc. but I don’t recall half the data I needed to pass. The most important takeaway from the test was basic–

    Wash your hands frequently!

    That being said, I am also reminded that laws and city ordnances designed for public health and food safety are only as useful as the general attitude of the establishment. I shower, brush my teeth, and wash my hands frequently at work. Before handling food, I wash my hands. I utilize standard practices of health safety. I am always in the letter of the law, but it means nothing if things don’t come from the top (owner or manager) down.

    If signs come to Berkeley restaurants indicating less than par cleanliness, if the violation is rat droppings in the tortellini dough, that’s one thing–if it’s a restroom which doesn’t have hot water or a leaky faucet (relatively trivial), then that’s another thing. Either a serious infraction or a niggly one can tar a restaurant with the same negative poster.

    And one last thing–always be polite to anyone who could choose to spit in your food if you’re a dick to them. I’m just saying…

  • Chrisjuricich

    Doesnt matter, does it? They’re a private operation now, no different than when you eat over at a friend’s home. You trust your friends, don’t you?

  • Chrisjuricich

    Precisely! I’m not a germophobe in the slightest and this is a dirty,dirty world, where there are dishwashing machines whose ambient temperature is one degree below the required safety standards! Shocking, I know. There are health code violations rampant in restaurants out there which have endured for years, yet people continue to eat in such establishments and still maintain their health.

    It’s a dirty world–I love it.

  • Huge fan of Phil’s and after posting a positive Yelp review, I got an email from Hugh thanking me for it. Definitely keeps me going back when owners are responsive and appreciative of criticism and positive remarks as well.

  • Fingerpuppetsrock

    Once you’ve been food poisoned, you’re forever cautious. I check the health rating of every restaurant I go to. If they can charge for food, I can demand cleanliness. A colored card in the window is extremely useful.

  • EarlyMorningCoffee

    There are some gross bathrooms in the restaurants of Berkeley. I’m looking at you Lanesplitters. I hope the color system wakes up the mops.

  • eater

     Why isn’t chez panisse in the database?

  • 4Eenie

    Interesting. It is in the database, though misspelled CHEZ PANNISSE (two ‘n’s).

  • bozonose

    Don’t forget to look it up under “CHEESE PENIS” as well.

  • Berkeley Foodie

    I actually stopped going to PiQ because a worker there (I think it was the owner) would routinely touch the food while I was selecting it, and then he handled the money at the register. 

    Also, the sandwiches/pastries were stored a little too out in the open. I admit I’m probably being  overly germaphobic here, but when it comes to cold food, I’d like to be handled/stored better.