SF Food Watch: CleanScores.com Boosts Health and Wealth

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Stanford prof and lawyer create web site that shames dirty SF restaurants with easy-to-read data from their public health reports
By Joe Eskenazi

In May 2007 at a lunch joint that, mercifully, will remain nameless, Guy Michlin discovered he’d been provided with more than just caramelized onions, cheese and mushrooms in his crepe. He also got a nail. Not a fingernail. A bang-it-into-the-wall-with-a-ball-peen-hammer nail.

“So of course I got a free lunch, but that didn’t really compensate for the nail,” he said.

Hardware store implements finding their way into meals is, thankfully, an oddity. But a quick glance at the horrific range of violations health inspectors undercover at restaurants in San Francisco and elsewhere almost makes you want to order the nail soufflé, heavy on the brass shavings, please.

The timing of Michlin’s spiked crepe was darkly apropos, as he’d just finished launching CleanScores, a Web site that tracks the health inspection results of every restaurant in San Francisco.

It turns out the reason why the 34-year-old lawyer and Stanford MBA takes such an interest in the fastidiousness of San Francisco kitchens isn’t because he’s the Israeli version of the Anal-Retentive Chef.

No, he saw an opportunity to do good by doing well. He hopes to one day print CleanScores certificates restaurants can proudly hang in their front windows -- you could call it the hygienic Zagat rating -- for a small fee in the low three digits (he’s handed out a few for free to test the waters). And he sees the site as a vehicle for keeping San Franciscans out of dirty restaurants – and the hospital.

That’s no overstatement. Michlin’s former Stanford instructor and current CleanScores partner, professor Phillip Leslie, found that’s just what happened when Los Angeles adopted its letter grade filth-o-meter for gauging restaurants in 1996.

Analyzing the logs of local hospitals for cases of food-borne illnesses and combing the IRS revenues of L.A. eateries, the professor found (Download paper published in "Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues," which is a publication of the American Agricultural Economics Association in 2005)that after the introduction of the popular and highly visible grades there was a 20 percent decline in food poisoning hospitalizations and eateries with “A” grades generated six percent more revenue (C-list restaurants lost 1 percent of their business).

Of course, the 500-visitor a day site CleanScores isn’t telling you anything you couldn’t learn from the Department of Public Health’s Web site. Yet it warrants mentioning that the DPH’s site is laughably clunky and about as attractive as the Federal Building. As is so often the case, easy and pretty beats ugly and difficult.

So far, Michlin and Leslie have sunk between $10,000-20,000 of their own funds into the professionally designed site. They are actively looking for seed money to help them expand past San Francisco. But, if they do, a whole new can of worms await them (and hopefully not in a crepe).

While S.F. evaluates restaurants from 0-100, L.A. utilizes the aforementioned letter grades while New York City, inexplicably, rates from 100-0. If CleanScores takes off, it may bring about some much-needed uniformity; New Yorkers visiting the City might turn and flee from a 100-rated restaurant.

Well, it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it. And Michlin is all too aware: If you don’t nail unhygienic restaurants, it’s just a mater of time before they nail you.

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