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Want to see how your favorite restaurant rates?

Results of county restaurant inspections are publicly available online. You can search for a specific facility name, street address, city, ZIP code and/or placard color here

Restaurants across Sonoma County have in recent months begun prominently posting color-coded placards reflecting the results of their latest health inspections, part of a new grading system that appears to be working as county officials expected.

Over the first four months of the new system, which began in June, county health inspectors issued more than 1,000 green “pass” placards, 25 yellow “conditional pass” placards and nine red placards, forcing businesses to temporarily close because of an immediate threat to public health and safety.

The results are generally consistent with the findings of a previous trial period that indicated 96.5 percent of eligible facilities would have received a green placard, 3 percent would have received a yellow placard and 0.5 percent would have received a red one.

“What we’re really beginning to see is, as the restaurants get more and more educated, they’re able to maintain the green,” said Christine Sosko, the county’s director of environmental health. “Those that are getting the yellow, they’re learning from that, they’re making the change quickly and they’re getting right back to the green very quick.”

The placards replace Sonoma County’s discontinued “Recognition of Excellence in Food Safety” program, which awarded five stars to restaurants that met certain safety requirements. County supervisors in February approved implementing the placard system, following in the footsteps of multiple Bay Area locales already using a color-coded grading scheme.

Under Sonoma County’s program, businesses receive green “pass” placards if they have no more than one major health code violation that can be fixed or mitigated during a random inspection.

Yellow “conditional pass” placards are given to businesses with two or more major violations, and inspectors issue red placards when they observe an imminent health and safety threat such as a rodent or insect infestation, no hot water or surfacing sewage.

Yellow or red placards necessitate a follow-up inspection, at which point businesses can earn a green placard. That does not erase all evidence of the previous yellow or red, however: each placard, which must be displayed near the facility’s main entrance, lists the result of the previous inspection until the next.

Among the inspections health officials conducted from June through September, most businesses receiving yellow or red placards were able to get a green within a few days, due to the required reinspection.

But that was not always the case.

When Simply Vietnam Express was inspected in September, the Santa Rosa restaurant received two major violations for not adhering to proper holding temperatures and proper cooling methods. A county inspection report also notes a live roach in the restaurant’s dry storage room, multiple dead roaches in a walk-in freezer where frozen raw meat and seafood were stored, a live roach in a prep area for sandwiches and “dozens of flies” in two different areas.

The restaurant was given another major violation, directed to follow up with pest control and received a red placard. But two subsequent reinspections in as many days continued to show the presence of live cockroaches, and the restaurant remained closed until receiving a green placard on its third reinspection.

Sosko said such cases are rare. Numerous attempts to reach a Simply Vietnam Express representative were unsuccessful.

Simply Vietnam Express was not the only restaurant to face such problems over the first four months of the placard system — insects plagued multiple other facilities that were initially issued red placards. Lack of appropriately hot water was another common theme among businesses that at one point had a red placard.

Saul Gropman’s upscale Cafe La Haye in Sonoma was among the restaurants health inspectors evaluated under the first month of the new grading system. The restaurant had only one minor violation, regarding lights in its dry storage area, and received a green placard in mid-June.

Gropman said he had no problem with the placards because his restaurant had long passed health inspections “with flying colors.” But he indicated he might prefer a different grading system.

“The highest level just says ‘Passed,’ which sounds not overwhelmingly exciting,” Gropman said. “People would have to do some research to see what that means, rather than a letter grade, which is very clear.”

Restaurant inspection systems vary across the country. Some areas, such as Los Angeles, award letter grades, while others, including Sacramento, give color-coded placards. Still others award numerical grades; and some merely post inspection reports online or only make them available via Freedom of Information Act requests, said David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“The one system that really serves the public is when it’s right there on the door. You get to see, before you walk into that restaurant, whether or not they’re maintaining good, sanitary standards and they’re the kind of place where you want to take your family to share a meal,” he said.

Under Sonoma County’s new placard system, the grade given to a facility is based only on major health code violations. A minor violation, such as a missing floor tile, does not affect the placard color ultimately awarded by health inspectors, Sosko said.

“We still look at floors, walls and ceilings and we still mark violations and have everybody repair those and do that, but we don’t base the grade on the minor violations,” she said. “That’s really an industry standard. The difference between a missing floor tile and an infestation is pretty broad.”

Health inspections are conducted not only for full-fledged restaurants but also for markets, coffee shops and other food-selling businesses. The frequency of inspections varies depending on how much food preparation is involved: Businesses with a minimal amount are randomly inspected once a year, while those with moderate or extensive levels are inspected twice a year, according to Sosko.

Food trucks are inspected by county health officials as well, but they are not currently part of the placard program. The county may consider adding them in the future, Sosko said.

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