Some restaurants rate new King County food safety rankings as ‘needs to improve’

SEATTLE — The kitchen at Toulouse Petit is a busy place. It was not a happy place when King County’s new food rating system rolled out for restaurants earlier this year. Their kitchen on Lower Queen Anne in Seattle got the lowest mark of ‘Needs Improvement’.

“Heartsick, absolutely heartsick,” says Chef Robin Posey when she found out. “I put my head in my hands and I had a really hard time focusing on the rest of the day.”

Posey says their low rating at the French-Cajun fusion restaurant comes, in part, from a closure last fall. King County Public Health inspectors closed the restaurant in September of 2016 when six patrons got sick after eating beef tartar. It's a dish that has raw egg and uncooked beef.

"To carry a blemish on your record that you believe is there unfairly in the first place is so trying," says Posey.

While beef tartar and other items that involve raw ingredients, like the popular quail egg item, are off the menu, the new rating system is a rolling average of the last four random food inspections.

The county says that means the emoji a restaurant gets reflects the last year and a half of inspections -- instead of just one spot visit from a possible cranky inspector.

"I'm not against high standards," says Posey. "I’d be a terrible chef if I were, but it’s more just losing sight of the forest for a couple trees."

One part of the new food safety standards that started this January is changing how the county inspects restaurants. Now the county pairs two inspectors up randomly to work together. Something that program manager, Becky Elias, says will help develop ratings consistency going forward, "on the whole it’s been quite positive."

Elias says the publicly available food safety record for Toulouse Petit has quite a few blemishes. Dings mostly for not keeping hot food hot enough or cold food cold enough.

"That is a situation where our food safety rating system is really serving the public and the consumer quite well." 

In response to their rating, Toulouse Petit put a note near the county rating to protest their current unfavorable rating.

"It’s very frustrating to be dinged for something that five years ago was fine," says Posey about changing safety standards on acceptable food storage temperatures.

Posey says the restaurant's business hasn't slowed since the first round of the ratings ended up on their door on Queen Anne Avenue North. The eight-year establishment is often filled with neighborhood regulars and she thinks people will keep eating there because of the cuisine they offer and quality experience that their dedicated patrons have.

"If you have such a dedicated base of regulars, they know from their own experience nothing bad has every happened to them here," says Posey. "That kind of word of mouth really helps. When people walk by and they see a busy thronging Toulousian night, they’re going to come in despite the sign."

For Michelle Hinckley, visiting Seattle from out town, she loves the food safety rating system.

"Oh, it's so easy to understand. I think it's great," says the mom visiting from the Midwest.

She says they don't have them quite the same way back home. Hinckley says the posted new ratings are easy to use and would steer her decision-making as far as which places to dine while she's here.

The new food rating system in King County is only two months old. Coming next month -- new signs will go up in South Seattle, South King County and Bellevue.

While the county says they’re open to tweaking this program, they’re not planning any changes anytime soon.

If you'd like to check out how your favorite restaurant fares, the county's complete food inspection report history is available online.