On the surface, the Gila County Health Department's scoring system for the general cleanliness and healthfulness of local restaurants seems simple.
Like a grade school math test, the top score is 100, and points are deducted for hygienic "errors." Therefore, one would assume, it would be more healthful to eat at a bistro with a 96 rating that one that scored 92.
Well, that's not necessarily so, according to Svanna Jones, the Rim country's only restaurant health inspector.
In fact, Jones said, the current scoring system is so misleading that the State of Arizona will do away with it by this time next year, in favor of a non-number system that's still in the planning stage.
The basic problem with the 100-point system, Jones said, is that it is not at all like grade-school test scoring.
For example, a restaurant that earned a 96 rating could have received that score because the kitchen is home to throngs of rodents and insects who don't care where they leave their droppings -- a situation that would get an automatic four-point subtraction.
On the other hand, a restaurant could be as sanitary as a doctor's scalpel and still get a rating of 95 if it were, say, located in an older building with one cracked floor tile (minus one point), a burnt-out light bulb (minus one), a broken refrigerator thermometer (minus one), a scratch on the wall (minus one), and a metal scoop inadvertently left in an ice bin during the inspection (minus two points).
"At which of those restaurants would you want to eat?" Jones asked rhetorically. "You can't tell by looking at the score. That's why we're getting rid of this system."
By the same token, a perfect 100 score is not to be entirely trusted.
"The day a restaurant opens, it would almost certainly get a perfect score because nobody's been in the kitchen yet," Jones said. "But two hours later, it could be a different story entirely."
The worst offenses a restaurant can commit, according to the official inspection report checklist, earn a minus-five points each. Those deductions are made when potentially hazardous food does not meet temperature requirements during storage, preparation, display, service or transportation; when personnel with infections are not restricted; when employees fail to keep their hands washed and cleaned or practice good hygiene; and when toxic items, such as certain cleaning solutions or insecticides, are not properly stored, labeled and used.
Jones, a native of Iceland, has been a health inspector for 13 years -- three in San Diego, Calif., eight in metro Phoenix, and the past two years in Payson. She majored in environmental health in college with the aim of becoming a microbiologist -- but detoured into health inspections instead.
The most hair-raising experiences of Jones' career occurred in San Diego, she said.
"There you have rats, not mice. They run around and urinate everywhere, including on the food, and you can't see it with the naked eye. It's awful, and it occurred not only in little independent restaurants, but major chains as well."
Jones' single worst experience, in fact, was walking into a major chain restaurant in the coastal California city.
"There was about four inches of sewage throughout the whole kitchen. It was a pool of sewage. And the kitchen workers were walking around in it like there was nothing wrong!"
As for the lowest rating she's ever given, Jones said, "I may have given a few restaurants a 50 ... but it doesn't make much difference once they get into the 60s, because that's when we close them down for being an imminent health hazard."
The very important thing Jones would like Payson's diners to know is, "None of this happens here. The (restaurant owners) here take care of their problems immediately. Sometimes, they'll close down and fix a problem without ever telling me about it."
Outside of some rodent problems in two restaurants, which are now being taken care of, the worst situations Jones usually faces in Payson usually involve things like hand washing and sanitizing, which are considered serious but easily correctable.
"It's amazingly different here," she said. "The majority of people here are so good, so willing to learn. And they actually make the changes we suggest. That's the hardest thing to get people to do.
"In Phoenix and San Diego, there are many restaurant owners -- I'd say at least 20 percent of them -- who won't do any more than they have to just to stay open. That's just not the case here, and it makes my job wonderful."
For the record, one Payson restaurant was given an 82 for a series of offenses, starting with "rodent droppings in the dining area." But that was by far the area's lowest score, Jones said, and "the owners are now taking care of the problems."
Out of deference to local restaurant-owners, Jones will not divulge her own favorite places to dine out locally. But the Payson eateries to which she has bestowed 100 points are Sesame Inn, Arby's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Bagels & Brew, Cousins, German Cowboy, Pete's Place, Uncle Tom's Pizza in Pine, the cafeteria at the Payson Regional Medical Center, the American Legion, and the Payson Senior Center.