Do consumers care enough about proper hygiene in restaurants that they'd be willing to pay to track it on a regular basis? HDScores is betting on it.
— Erika Adams
HDScores, a seven-year-old restaurant tech startup that is known for powering Yelp’s restaurant hygiene scores, has launched its own subscription-based app displaying extensive health code information for a variety of businesses, including restaurants and coffee shops, across multiple regions of the U.S.
The app costs $1.99 per month or $11.99 for a full-year subscription. Users gain access to the business’ health code score as determined by HDScores, as well as the local health department’s score (government methods for scoring can vary per city and state) and a historical rundown of past scores and violations that the business may have incurred.
The company believes that restaurants should be held to a high level of accountability when it comes to providing a safe, clean environment to consume food, and in order to do that, public health code data should be much more digitally accessible to consumers.
In order to account for widely differing local health department reporting standards, HDScores employs an algorithm that weighs the business’ number of violations, repeat offenses, and average scores over time to generate a score ranging from zero to 100 percent based on how well the restaurant has performed in local health inspections.
“We wanted to look at it from a historical perspective,” said Glynne Townsend, partner and chief operating officer of HDScores. “Is this restaurant operation really knocking it out of the park in terms of its ability to maintain high hygiene standards?”
HDScores is self-funded by four partners running the business and employs five people at its headquarters in Gilbert, Arizona.
The Yelp Partnership
HDScores’ first real taste of the nationwide consumer demand for this kind of information came in July 2018, when Yelp announced that the company would be plugging HDScores’ hygiene data into its restaurant pages on its app and website across a number of cities in the U.S., after successful tests in Florida and California.
The ensuing news storm generated over a billion media impressions for the company.
Townsend and the HDScores team were shocked at the nationwide reaction. Local TV news reporters in Pittsburgh took to the streets, interviewing diners on whether they’d be interested in seeing a restaurant’s health code prominently displayed on Yelp. Jimmy Fallon worked it into his opening monologue on The Tonight Show.
“We were totally taken off guard by the level of support and the interest and the concern that this raised in the general public,” Townsend said.
Betting on Subscriptions
While the HDScores team had been previously planning to launch their own app at some point, seeing the reaction to the Yelp announcement confirmed that there would be widespread consumer interest in this kind of information. And the company is willing to bet that consumers will pay for it.
“We looked at going to an advertising revenue-based model, but frankly by doing that, the only people who would be advertising would be the restaurant owners,” Townsend said. “Then, we’re put into that conflict of interest, where the people paying us are the people that we’re reporting on. What happens when they call up and say, ‘I have a problem with my score?'”
Townsend admitted that there was no guarantee that the subscription model would work, and the company would probably move to some sort of hybrid subscription and advertising revenue model if not enough people were willing to buy into the app. But Townsend emphasized that it was critical that consumers trust the app as an independent source of unbiased information, which is easiest under a subscription model.
“A lot of the current review sites are funded [with advertising revenue] and it raises questions as to how the corporate politics work when a large restaurant sponsor wants some data removed or manipulated or de-emphasized,” Townsend said. “We wanted to go for the independent stance on our data set, just like it’s independently generated by the local government now.”
The Restaurant Reaction
Local health department inspection systems are not perfect. When Yelp announced that it’d be expanding its HDScores partnership last summer, Washington City Paper reported on a local D.C. restaurant that, due to a “computer glitch” at the local Department of Health, had a two-year-old low health grade still attached to its business, which could have been mistakenly amplified on its current Yelp page. “We’ve made mistakes in the past and to highlight those past shortcomings is obviously detrimental,” restaurant owner John Tran told Washington City Paper at the time.
HDScores relies on public health department data to generate its own scores that are then broadcast to consumers. Mistakes like these can go unchecked until the restaurant operators themselves bring complaints to HDScores. Other operators question the fairness of widely publicizing years-old violations that they’d rather not remind customers of, even if their current score reflects a clean environment.
Executives at the Golden Gate Restaurant Association in California and the New York City Hospitality Alliance in New York voiced concern to Skift Table in July, when Yelp initially announced the HDScores integration, saying that it could potentially highlight damaging, inaccurate information about a restaurant.
Townsend is in charge of handling business complaints, which he says can pour in multiple times per day. “I’ve been called some really creative and colorful names,” Townsend said.
“It’s funny because I can actually look back at the country right now and really stereotype it. The first thing that the New Yorkers say is that they want to tell the CEO of Yelp that this is a worthless service and basically run it up the food chain. The folks in Chicago, they just curse and swear. The ones over in California, they’re going to start a class-action lawsuit against us. And there’s the ones in Texas who are just kind and want to understand what’s going on. It’s a real melting pot out there.”
But as long as the health data is publicly available from government sources, HDScores is going to keep using it — and updating business pages on its app on a regular basis.
“It’s their performance being measured by professionals from the local health department,” Townsend said. “We’re just providing a platform to communicate that data.”