First impressions count in a lot of areas, like buying a house or a car, and more in some others — such as dating and dining.
In terms of buying a meal, that first look — and maybe that first sniff — tells us a lot.
"You can tell walking in the door if a restaurant is good or not," said Plymouth resident and frequent Traverse City visitor Bill Strand, who said he likely wouldn't bother checking out restaurants on Grand Traverse County's relatively new online restaurant inspection site.
Others, including some local restaurant owners, think the site is a good idea, if only to keep track of competitors.The county has been doing restaurant inspections for a long time and has yet to take a food service establishment to a formal hearing in almost two decades.
That makes a lot of sense. The county posts online inspection reports for about 400 restaurants, school cafeterias, church kitchens, and mobile food vendors, which means everyone out there selling food for a living has a lot of competition. Given the likelihood that some potential patrons make up their minds after just a look, a restaurant that looks dirty or gives off a suspicious odor is asking for trouble.
Fred Laughlin, director of the Great Lakes Culinary Institute in Traverse City, questioned the need to post inspection reports online. "I think it's a little grandstanding ..." he said. "You just aren't in business very long if you run a dirty restaurant."
That's probably true, but having the site available is a good thing. Seeing that your favorite place has passed inspection (or has troubles) is more data to rely on.
The actual restaurant review site — www.co.grand-traverse.mi.us/departments/health/Environmental_Health — is not particularly user-friendly. But after a few minutes a visitor can figure most things out and realize that some things are truly scary — like having toxic chemicals too close to food or employees not washing their hands — but others considered "critical" aren't so bad: improperly dated food or a hood vent that's not up to snuff. There's critical and then there's "critical," as in turn and run out the door.
The department says restaurants must immediately correct critical violations or submit to a follow-up inspections; continued violations result in a compliance conference and then a formal hearing. The county hasn't gone to a formal hearing in nearly 20 years.
In any case it's good to have a resource if only for comparison purposes. First impressions count, but sometimes there is more to consider than what meets the eye.