Grading system for Baltimore restaurants proposed

Restaurant and bar owners in Baltimore may soon be required to post letter grades rating their performance in city health inspections — a system aimed at informing the public about the cleanliness of neighborhood eateries.

Legislation mandating that the city health department implement a grading system and create an online database of grades is scheduled to be reviewed Wednesday by the City Council's health committee. Every member of the council and council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young have signed on as sponsors of the bill, which was introduced by Councilman Brandon Scott.

The city health department and the Baltimore Development Corporation have also thrown their support behind the measure, as have other city agencies and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration.

"Ultimately, people deserve to know the conditions of places where they eat," Scott said. "This is about people being able to make an informed choice."

Representatives of the state's restaurant industry and some local establishment owners disagree, calling the measure an expensive, inconsistent and ill-informed policy that would not benefit public health but would threaten local businesses.

Ron Furman, owner of Max's Taphouse in Fells Point for the past 26 years, said he takes pride in his business and expects he would receive a top grade. Still, he fears that he and other responsible business owners could face a major drop in sales under the grading system if, when inspected, they happen to have a minor infraction based on a one-time mistake and receive a lower grade.

"If a guy comes in from out of town and he sees a thing on the wall that says, 'Health Inspection: B,' he's going to say, 'Well let's not eat here, let's go look for an A.' And meanwhile, the place is fine," Furman said. "It could be devastating financially because the public doesn't understand."

There are more than 5,700 food establishments in the city that are inspected on a sliding scale based on level of risk, according to Mary Beth Haller, the city's assistant commissioner of environmental health. Currently, more than 2,600 "high-risk" establishments are inspected every four months; more than 1,900 "moderate-risk" establishments are inspected every six months; and more than 1,200 "low-risk" establishments are inspected every other year.

This year, 68 have been closed or temporarily closed due to violations, which range from lacking hot water to having mice or insect infestations, Haller said. There were 111 closures in 2011. The total number of closures per year has generally been trending downward since 2007, when there were 267, according to statistics Haller provided.

"We have good compliance. We want that to continue," Haller said. The grading system, she said, is "just another way of providing patrons with information."

Melvin Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy with the Restaurant Association of Maryland, which strongly opposes the grading system, called Scott's bill "a solution in search of a problem."

Thompson said one of the most concerning aspects of the bill, as written, is its lack of details.

"All this legislation really does is directs the health department to come up with that system," he said. "It's asking the City Council to approve something where they have absolutely no idea what the final product is going to look like."

Paul Goldberg, who opened Meet 27 in Charles Village last year, said the city's inspectors are "pretty rigorous" in their inspections and are vigilant in pointing out problems, regardless of how minor they are. Restaurant owners already do a good job of resolving issues immediately, he said.

A grading system, Goldberg said, would muddy the waters by indicating that there are different levels of cleanliness that are acceptable in the city.

"We think you have to be clean, end of story, and if you're not clean, you shouldn't be operating. We don't believe in a grading system," he said of himself and other owners he's talked to. "You're fit to serve food or you're not. The nuances are lost on me. To me, it's a black-and-white issue."

As written, Scott's bill would give a restaurant a week to rectify problems found in an initial inspection before it is re-evaluated and given a letter grade, but the health department has recommended amending the bill so that a letter grade could be issued on the spot.

The bill indicates the best grade would be an "A," but does not outline how many different letter grades would be issued. New York City's system issues letters from "A" to "C."

Scott contends that the grading system would help the public better understand the local restaurant industry and how it is monitored, and inform residents on how city establishments compare to one another. He said he has seen some restaurants and carryout eateries in his Northeast District receive violations, work out a quick fix, then continue to operate below the standard residents deserve.

"In some of these places, it was just atrocious," he said.

Scott first started thinking about a grading system in Baltimore after visiting family in North Carolina two years ago, he said. A statewide grading system there — systems have been implemented in numerous states, cities and counties nationwide, to mixed reviews — impressed him, he said, and he saw a similar system being a solution in Baltimore.

"This isn't something we're going to rush into," he said, pointing out that Baltimore's health department will have the benefit of looking at systems elsewhere and learning from their mistakes. "This is something we're going to have to work on over months, maybe six to 12 months."

Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor's administration supports the bill with amendments proposed by the city's health and legal departments.

Casey Jenkins, owner of Darker Than Blue in Waverly, said he would have no problem with a grading system. Many restaurant owners in the city already hold themselves to the health standards on which they are inspected, he said, and a grading system would only reinforce that.

"It's going to be another tool to make us transparent," he said. "I think it's going to be a tool to hold us up to our standards."

But Jenkins questioned how the program would be paid for, echoing concerns from Furman and Thompson that the program will force restaurant license fees to be increased to pay for more inspectors.

"Our licenses just went up last year by a couple dollars, and they're fairly expensive licenses already," said Jenkins, who said he pays $530 a year for his food-handling license.

Thompson said the restaurant grading system implemented in New York City cost $5 million and forced the city to hire 50 new inspectors. It also kept inspectors busy responding to requests for re-evaluations from restaurant owners with low grades, instead of responding to the worst offenders, Thompson said.

An outside study of the New York system this year by a group of academics, including Daniel E. Ho, a Stanford University law professor, found inconsistencies with how the grades were assigned. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has said the program decreased food-borne illnesses and increased overall restaurant revenue.

Haller said Baltimore is not New York, which has some 24,000 restaurants, so there will be differences in New York's program cost and Baltimore's. But it is too early to predict whether Baltimore's program will require more city funding or resources, she said.

"We don't have a system yet, so I can't say whether or not it would require us to have more inspectors, but the idea is that it would just be part of our existing inspection process," Haller said. The number of inspectors in Baltimore has recently fluctuated, but there are currently 13, Haller said.

Haller said the health department supports the concept of "transparent government" in general and believes the grading system will improve communication between the department and city residents.

"We feel that we can provide better transparency into the inspections, what we're writing down, what kind of violations are being found, and what our inspectors are doing, so that people can see, including the restaurant owners, that it's an even playing field," Haller said.