How data made me a believer in New York City’s restaurant grades

One morning in April, the neighbors of Dominique Ansel Bakery, whose owner invented the “cronut” (the pastry famed for combining the croissant and donut), were amused. For the first time in a long time, the tourists who commonly mobbed the little Manhattan bakery had disappeared. Were we finally hearing the popping of the cronut bubble?

Not quite.

A makeshift sign on the door disclosed that the bakery was temporarily closed for failing an inspection by New York City’s health department, which made waves during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure for initiating a letter grading system for restaurants. The April inspection, Dominique Ansel’s second in seven months, was triggered by an act of citizen journalism. The day before, the Gothamist blog had published a video shot by a customer of a small mouse scurrying inside the store.

In response, the bakery sent a note to its cronut-deprived fans: “Due to the video that was released showing a small mouse running across the screen for five seconds, the health department used it as evidence to ask us to re-cement and closed down the bakery for extermination. As a small one-shop bakery, we often feel like we’re being looked at under a tremendous microscope.”

Did one tiny mouse really close the trendy bakery? I used data from the health department to investigate this question, and the short answer is no. I ran an algorithm to analyze historical data, deducing the relative importance of different factors, including vermin, on restaurant health grades. While certain chefs have complained about specific health inspection rules, after examining the data, I accept the logic behind the grades, and feel pretty confident referencing them now.

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