Lexington Market to reopen Saturday after video of rat in bakery case prompts shutdown

The Baltimore Sun

Lexington Market will reopen Saturday after officials closed the market Friday to address a rat problem exposed by a Facebook video depicting a live rat inside a bakery stall display case.

“The problem has been contained and resolved...” Baltimore Public Markets Corp. said in a statement Friday afternoon announcing the 6 a.m. reopening. “We apologize for any inconvenience to our customers and look forward to continuing to serve as a resource for the community and for visitors to Baltimore.”

City health officials closed Buttercup Bakery citing a rodent infestation and the adjacent Berger’s Bakery for a fly infestation after inspecting them late Thursday. Market officials decided late Friday morning to close the entire market at 11:30 a.m., “so that all parts of the Market can easily be evaluated after our recent incident,” it said in a statement.

Originally posted to Facebook Thursday afternoon, the video had been shared more than 17,000 times by late Friday afternoon. The video depicts a rat inside a display case at Buttercup, crawling over a cake then scurrying across platters of lemon and ginger snaps.

The incident is a black eye for the historic Baltimore market, which serves as a draw for residents and tourists. Lexington Market has stood on the same site since 1782, in a series of different buildings. Officials with Baltimore Public Markets and the city are planning to demolish the current structure and replace it to broaden the market’s appeal, improve its offerings and make it an engine for growth in an area the city wants to revitalize.

City health inspectors went to the stall after someone sent the video to the health department at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, said Mona Rock, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Health Department, in an email.

While they checked out Buttercup, an inspector noticed a fly infestation at Berger’s. No other stalls were inspected because most were closed by the time health officials finished with Buttercup and Berger’s, Rock said.

Both stalls have the same ownership, said Mike Mastro, general manager and part owner of the two stalls. While Berger’s Bakery sells Baltimore's iconic Berger Cookies, baked at DeBaufre Bakeries in South Baltimore, DeBaufre Bakeries is not affiliated with the Lexington Market stand.

Mastro said workers immediately shut the stall down after the rat was spotted and threw away all the food. They worked until 11 p.m. Thursday cleaning the stalls with bleach, he said.

“This is the first time [this happened], and it wasn’t even my fault,” Mastro said.

Mastro suspects the rat got into the display case after an employee stepped out of the stall and forgot to shut the door. Charlotte White, another manager, was waiting on customers when the rat appeared. Customers started screaming.

“It scared the hell out of me,” White said.

Mastro and White shooed it away. White said the rat jumped out of the case, scurried out of the stall and ran off toward the entrance of the market.

Mastro and White defended the stalls, saying they clean them daily and put fresh baked goods out every morning. They both said the issue was with Lexington Market management.

White, who has worked in the market for 30 years, said rodents are a common sight in and around the market, but they come from outside and market management has not done enough to address the problem.

“Even if we put sticky traps, put poison down, it’s not going to work,” White said.

Stacey Pack, a spokeswoman for Lexington Market, said the market’s pest control contractor treats the market at least twice a week, going through the entire property, including individual stalls.

“We follow all the same rules that everyone else has to follow in Baltimore city,” Pack said,

Pack said market management takes complaints of pest infestations “very seriously” not just for public health reasons, but because the market is a source of fresh food for low-income residents. Rats are a common site throughout the city, and the market’s dozen entrances make it easy for pests to get in, she said.

“When you think about how old Lexington Market is and when it was built and some of the things it was used for, I don't think anyone should be surprised that this issue would pop up,” said City Councilman Brandon Scott.

A similar issue flared in 1997 after television news cameras caught two rats in the market, according to a Baltimore Sun report at the time. In response, a health department inspector came out and cited the market for several violations — about a month after the health department already cited the market for rodent and insect problems.

The city has operated the market since 1817. A six-alarm fire raged through the main building in 1949, prompting the construction of the current building. While the city announced plans in late 2016 to raze and rebuild the market into a multistory glass building, the project is still in the preliminary design phase and there’s no cost estimate for it, Pack said.

This is not the first health-related closure of the Berger’s stall, which the Health Department shut down for two days in October 2016 for roach infestation. Six other Lexington Market stalls were shut down temporarily between 2013 and 2014, all for either rodent or roach infestations, according to health department records available online.

Rock said the closed stalls can reopen only when inspectors take another look and find them “clean and sanitary.”

The video that prompted the market’s shutdown was recorded and posted by city resident Milton Mitchell, who said he stopped there Thursday to buy cookies for his wife from Buttercup.

As he approached the stall, he heard a commotion and someone pointed out the rat in the display case. He immediately took his phone out and started recording.

“I never thought it would get this big, but I’m glad it did,” Mitchell said. “I let the public know what kind of situation Lexington Market is in.”

As people passed both stands on Friday morning before the closure, several stopped to read the yellow Health Department signs posted to both Buttercup and Berger’s.

Anthony Banks said he bought food from Buttercup occasionally, most recently a couple of weeks ago.

“I’m sick to my stomach that they have an infestation in there,” Banks said. “No, I’m done with that bakery.”

The closure didn’t faze longtime customer Karen Henson, who has shopped at Buttercup and Berger’s for at least 20 years, she said. She will be back as soon as they open, she said, asserting that the businesses are kept clean and that the employees treat customers “like family.”

“Those parasites are all around,” Henson said.

As Donna Jackson waited for her order at another stall, she said it’s on both Lexington Market and the individual vendors to keep things clean. She doesn’t plan to head back to Berger’s or Buttercup anytime soon.

“I would’ve been there today and got jelly doughnuts,” Jackson said. “I was just there Monday.”

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