If you have ever gone to get a meal with me, you likely know about my fascination with the food letter grade system.

Letter Grades


Essentially, health inspectors randomly visit restaurants and other places that serve food or drink and review cleanliness/following of food safety procedures resulting in a numbered score. The higher the number, the more problems the restaurant has. In the past, you could look up the number online, but it was not particularly easy to differentiate between a well maintained restaurant and a filth den. With the introduction of the letter grade, customers can quickly decide if the food is worth the potential risk of getting sick.

Westville B Grade

It's not a perfect system, but it seems to be effective at improving the cleanliness & compliance of restaurants and informing customers of the general health safety of the places they eat. Here in New York, the city has gone a step further by providing an iPhone app where you can not only see the letter grade, but see exactly why the grade applies.

Food Letter Grade App

For the 2D fabrication assignment, I wanted to try to use the laser cutter in a way it's not normally used and highlight the food letter grade system. Empirically I've noticed many people don't pay attention to the grade or are not phased by the foreboding orange C placed at the front door.

Choosing the Restaurants

For this experiment, I decided to choose one restaurant from each letter grade that I've visited before. I then purchased a food item that I had consumed from the restaurant sometime in the past.

A Grade Restaurant: Five Guys Burgers & Fries – Hamburger

B Grade Restaurant: Westville – Breaded Chicken Cutlet Salad

C Grade Restaurant: Pho Sure – Pho Sure Soup

Figuring out the Signs

Sign Typeface

For semi-obvious reasons, the NYC health department doesn't provide high-quality versions of the signs online. I had some difficulty figuring out the typeface. Eventually I discovered that the letters are set in Adobe Syntax Std Bold with a modified version of the letter A.

Figuring out the Typeface

Cutting the Food

Now for the hard part. Epilog Laser doesn't provide settings for laser engraving food items. After discussing the concept with the resident shop guru Eric, we determined it would be best to manually focus the laser and just experiment with different settings to get the cut right. 

For the laser at ITP, the best focus is achieved at 5 CM away from the item. I'm working with slightly curved items, so I wasn't sure how it would come out.

Ideally, I wanted to completely cut through the food, so there would be a void that resembles the applicable letter grade. In the future, I want to attempt to etch different items on the foods that relate to the specific reasons for the grade. (such as filth flies or roaches)

Here are the cutting settings I used:

[table id=3 /]

I'm pretty happy with the way the cuts went considering this is the first time I've worked with food in the laser cutter. More experimentation with different settings might produce better results.

Final Product

Laser Engraved Five Guys Burger

Laser Engraved Five Guys Burger

Laser Engraved Chicken Breast

Laser Engraved Chicken Breast

Laser Engraved Ramen Noodles
Laser Engraved Ramen Noodles


In the end, I wasn't able to cut through the food. With more experimentation, time and patience I do believe it's possible, however.

What's Next

It would be awesome to get some more 'scientific' measurements of the best laser speed, power and frequency. Also to test etching images or vector art onto food.

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