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Calif. county adds bar codes to restaurant inspection grades

Customers can scan codes with phones to see latest inspection reports

A technology that has been used by some restaurant companies for marketing purposes is being used by one California county to give diners near-instant access to health inspection records.

The environmental health division of Kern County Public Health has begun including quick-response, or QR, bar codes on restaurant inspection letter grade placards. When scanned by special readers, QR codes can spew out content to display screens or, using a software application, can direct mobile browsers to specific websites.

In the case of letter grades at a small but growing number of Kern County restaurants, such as Tahoe Joe’s Famous Steakhouse in Bakersfield, Calif., consumers with camera phones and QR-reading software can navigate to the health inspection report area of the health services department’s website.

Matt Constantine, the county’s director of public health, said Friday that placards with QR codes have only been available for three days. He said the county sees them as way of increasing access to information that can help consumers make informed decisions about where to dine.

“I believe it puts power in the hands of the customer and provides an economic incentive to the operator or business to achieve high standards,” he said.

Currently, users of the QR codes, once at the county website, must enter the name of the restaurant to see a report. But Constantine said his department is exploring cost-effective ways to customize the pre-printed letter grade placards so that QR codes leading to specific inspection reports can be added, such as through the use of adhesive labels with unique codes.

Because Kern County restaurants are required to keep a copy of their latest inspection reports on site for review by anyone who requests it, the addition of QR codes to letter grades is being taken in stride by some operators.

“We haven’t had any guest responses [to the technology] that we’re aware of,” said Greg Graber, president of 10-unit, Fresno, Calif.-based Tahoe Joe’s. “A majority of our guests won’t use it, but a few might.”

Graber, whose chain’s Bakersfield restaurant scored an A on its most recent inspection, added: “The good news is if people are scanning [the QR code], that means they are at our front door, and we’re happy about that.”

Tahoe Joe’s is a wholly owned subsidiary of Buffets Holdings Restaurants Inc. of Eagan, Minn., parent of the Old Country Buffet and HomeTown Buffet chains.

Though QR codes have been popular in Japan for many years — McDonald’s restaurants there have used the graphic panels on food wrappers to send consumers to a website with nutrition information, for example — their use by major restaurant companies in the United States only goes back about three years.

Other restaurant uses of QR codes:

• Papa John’s International Inc. and AT&T targeted about 200,000 consumers with direct-mail pieces with QR codes and instructions on how to download the software needed to read the codes. Once photographed by camera phones, the information contained in the QR codes triggered a series of automated steps that navigated the phones to Papa John’s mobile-device ordering website, where the users were rewarded with a free pizza.

• German branches of McDonald’s used QR codes for their “SMS Lounge” mobile coupon initiative, which had 10,000 participants during a 14-month period, according to a case study published by the Mobile Marketing Association. People who opted in via text message received a reply containing the special codes that holders could print out at kiosks inside their local McDonald’s to redeem coupons.

• Qdoba Mexican Grill franchisee Pete Shipman of Buena Ventures LLC used QR codes in posters and ads placed in a student newspaper to promote a new restaurant near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. When photographed with a cell-phone camera and text-messaged or e-mailed to a specified address, the codes returned a mobile coupon with a buy one-burrito-get-one-free offer that was redeemed by 53 percent of the 400 or so consumers who requested the deal.

Contact Alan J. Liddle at [email protected].

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