erhaps five or six years ago, I walked into a restaurant for lunch and immediately it didn’t seem right. Foul smell. Gritty floor. Inattentive staff. Sparse crowd.

After a few seconds I turned and walked back through the door. But on my way out, I was sure to look for the letter grade taped on the front window, the familiar blue sign given out by the Los Angeles County Health Department. Sure enough, it said “A.”

No surprise. Ninety-nine-point-something percent of all restaurants in Los Angeles County get an A rating, I’d wager. No matter how fetid the air or littered the floor.

It occurred to me then that at some point – I’m not sure exactly when, but clearly some time before I stepped into that rancid restaurant five or six years ago – I had stopped checking those letter grades at the entrances of restaurants. I used to pay attention to them, but they’d become something to ignore. Why bother to look for them when every restaurant gets an A?

Alas, it is clear the county’s restaurant grading system has fallen for the same sort of idiotic grade-inflation mentality that’s been infecting our school systems for decades. Baby boomers like me might recall that it took actual work in school to earn a C, and a B grade was something to be proud of. An A? That was rare and the mark of true accomplishment. Neighbors gossiped about it: “That girl who lives right over there got an A in science. Just think of it. There’s genius right here on our block.”

But now? If one of my kids had brought home a report card tarnished with a single B, that would have been enough to spin him into a depression so deep he couldn’t have picked up his PlayStation controller. For a half-hour anyway.

If you hire employees, you’ve probably come face to face with the result of today’s grade inflation. Maybe you’ve caught yourself saying some version of this: “How can a person who just graduated with a 4.0 grade point average be semiliterate?”

All of this came to mind last week because of two items in the news. The first was the announcement by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison that he wanted to return “participation trophies,” which are sports’ versions of grade inflation, that his two young sons had received for merely taking part in athletics. Harrison said he was proud of his sons but wanted them to “earn a real trophy.”

Indeed, giving a kid a trophy “for nothing,” as Harrison put it, debases the awards genuinely earned by those who went above and beyond and accomplished something rare and outstanding.

The other was the news Tuesday that the county Health Department sent a report up to the Board of Supervisors that recommended toughening the grading standards for restaurants.

This new stance came after the Los Angeles News Group reviewed 21 months of inspection data and reported that restaurants that had two major health code violations could still sport an A grade. Also, many restaurants had an A grade right up to the moment they were closed for egregious health code violations.

Just an opinion, but if a restaurant has one major health code violation, it should automatically get a B at best. If it has two, it should get a C.

What does an A mean when everyone has one?

Charles Crumpley is editor of the Business Journal. He can be reached at

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