Sonoma County approves new food-safety rating system for restaurants

Line cook Daniel Webb pulls a pizza from the wood-fired brick oven at the Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa . (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)


Sonoma County’s 3,500 restaurants and retail food outlets soon will participate in a new public rating system that could be more important to everyday business than winning a Michelin star or Zagat survey mention.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a color-coded placard system to let customers know how eateries fared in food safety inspections.

Restaurants with no more than one major violation that is correctable during unannounced health department visits will receive green “pass” placards, while those with two or more violations will receive yellow “conditional pass” cards. Red “closed” labels will be issued for more serious violations, such as vermin infestations or sewage backups, that can’t be fixed right away.

The 8½-by-7-inch cards must be posted in conspicuous locations such as storefronts or cash register stands. In all cases, owners will get a chance to make corrections and to be re-inspected for higher ratings.

“The purpose of this is to reduce the risk of food-borne illness,” Department of Health Services Director Stephan Betz told supervisors before they voted 5-0 in favor of the rating system.

It is expected to start sometime this spring and is modeled on programs elsewhere in the Bay Area, officials said.

The reaction from restaurant owners was muted Tuesday. No representatives of the industry, one of Sonoma County’s leading service and tourism sectors, attended the short hearing, which featured no public speakers and minimal debate among board members.

Owners reached by phone after the hearing were supportive.

Kevin Cronin, owner of Rosso Pizzeria and Wine Bar in Santa Rosa, said it’s a good thing. He said similar placards are mandatory in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.

“It makes everybody pay attention,” Cronin said. “It’s important for consumers to know they are dining in a place that is operated properly.”

But Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, worried any new regulation — as well-intentioned as it is — would bring added costs to businesses that would be passed on to the consumer.

“The reality is, it will cost a little more now to eat out in Sonoma County,” Coe said.

Supervisors backed the rating system as a way to protect the public while maintaining the reputation of food-centric Sonoma County.

Efren Carrillo, the board chairman, praised the results of a yearlong field study showing 96.5 percent of more than 2,500 restaurants inspected would have received the green placard.

Three percent got a yellow, and 0.5 percent, or 13 restaurants, received a red. Inspection reports are posted online through the county’s environmental health division.

“It’s a testament to our restaurants,” Carrillo said. “They put quality above everything, and food safety is a component of that.”

Other board members expressed concern the placards wouldn’t be issued to food trucks or temporary eateries, including stalls at farmers markets and crab feeds. Health officials said they could be considered in an update to the ordinance.

Also, Supervisors Susan Gorin and David Rabbitt worried the green “pass” placard might not go over well in high-end restaurants boasting top ratings by the likes of Michelin. Gorin said it “doesn’t help ambiance.”

“They would rather have a star,” she said.

In fact, the placard system replaces the county’s “Recognition of Excellence” program, discontinued last year, that awarded five stars to restaurants meeting food safety criteria.

Christine Sosko, the county’s director of environmental health, said the star system was confusing to people coming from outside the county who may not know what it is based on. She said the placard system is more intuitive.

Alameda, Marin, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties have it, she said.

“It’s something the consumer can understand,” she said. “Everyone kind of knows what green, yellow and red means.”

Sosko said the board action also included updates to county codes regulating health and sanitation, clarifying permit requirements and suspension proceedings. It focuses less on violations such as loose floor tiles and more on problems that can lead to illness, she said.

“It’s now a more robust program,” she said.

Waiting for their takeout order Tuesday night outside Sea Thai Bistro at Santa Rosa’s Montgomery Village, Carol Shoopman of Santa Rosa and her friend visiting from Spain, Denise Carlini, agreed the new placard system sounded like a good idea.

“It would be a hell of a motivation to keep it clean,” said Shoopman, 73.

Meanwhile, Lita Lyons said she looks forward to posting a green placard somewhere in her Santa Rosa restaurant. She said Lita’s Cafe received a five-star rating from the county five years in a row before the program was cut last year.

“It shows the public what kind of restaurant you are,” Lyons said.

Fernando Reyes, manager of his family’s La Fondita restaurant on Sebastopol Road in Santa Rosa, said the busy eatery was part of the field study conducted by the county last year in advance of Tuesday’s move, which he also welcomed.

“From the test they did, we got a green. It was good. They explained it all,” Reyes said of an unannounced visit by inspectors and follow-up meeting. “The rating system is straightforward and really understandable.”

He also said he would welcome the same standard for food trucks, including Delicias Elenita, owned and operated by his family outside their brick-and-mortar Roseland restaurant.

Consumers, regardless of where they’re eating, want such reassurance, Reyes said.

“They want to see how healthy that food is,” he said.

Staff Writer Julie Johnson contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or On Twitter @ppayne.