The lunch crowd outside the McDonald's on East Baltimore Street is strong and steady. Employees screech out orders. The receipt function breaks down, one hollers out. Another sweeps an increasingly messy floor.
This McDonald's is among four in Baltimore that health inspectors have closed at some point in the past four months because of mouse or roach infestations and unsanitary conditions.
And this downtown location has the distinction of being closed twice since September - most recently last month, although in this instance there were no vermin violations.
The series of violations is enough that Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein took the unusual step of writing a letter to regional corporate McDonald's officials Nov. 1, noting that 16 percent of the company's city franchises had been closed.
"We contacted McDonald's because of the unusual pattern and disproportionate number of McDonald's being closed during September and October," Sharfstein said yesterday.
"The regional office appears committed to making sure that all their restaurants are up to code. That's why it was so disappointing that we wound up closing another restaurant so quickly."
In a Nov. 17 response to Sharfstein's letter, corporate officials promised that new cleanliness and sanitation standards would be enforced at their independently owned franchises.
"I want to assure you that McDonald's and our franchisees are committed to complying with the City's standards as well as the McDonald's System," wrote Wendell Sconiers, vice president of quality service and cleanliness for the Baltimore-Washington region.
But less than a month later, the 101 E. Baltimore St. location was cited for health code violations again and closed for a day.
The violations this time included failure to follow proper washing procedures, provide thermometers for hot handling units, clean all the trash cans thoroughly, and repair a walk-in freezer and large ice machine.
The news was not a surprise to some of the lunch crowd patrons pouring out of the busy downtown location yesterday.
"It's filthy in there and the people are rude," said Karen Kalinowski, 60, of White Marsh. "The floors are dirty; the counters are dirty. They don't wipe up anything.
"It was an awful experience. I can believe it if they've been closed for health violations."
In a written statement issued yesterday, Sconiers wrote: "We have taken immediate corrective actions to address the most recent health department concerns as well as any prior concerns.
"We will continue to work with our restaurant managers, franchisees and the health department to ensure the continued operation of safe, clean restaurants."
About 300 restaurants in the city are closed annually - usually for a day or two - for violations of the health code.
The city's 25 McDonald's are inspected two or three times a year - more if they have spotty records or a member of the public files a complaint.
The East Baltimore Street McDonald's faces a Jan. 24 administrative hearing to determine whether its license should be revoked because it has received two critical violations in an 18-month period.
Sharfstein said a "handful" of restaurants a year lose their license because of violations.
In September, the McDonald's at 825 E. Fort Ave., as well as the East Baltimore Street location, were cited and closed. That represents 17 percent of the 12 food facilities closed that month, Sharfstein wrote in his letter to McDonald's.
The McDonald's at 825 E. Fort Avenue was closed after an inspector reported "light to moderate mice droppings observed in storage areas and at least one office area."
The 101 E. Baltimore St. location closed after a finding of "heavy fly infestation" in various areas, including the french fry area.
An inspector also noted about "30 dead roaches" in the basement.
On Oct. 10, the McDonald's at 2840 Greenmount Ave. was closed, while on Oct. 26, the one at 4635 Harford Road was closed.
That represented 13 percent of the 16 food facilities closed for unsanitary conditions in October.
The Greenmount Avenue location was closed after an inspection found a severe rat infestation on the immediate exterior, live rats running around the building, including at least five burrows near the building, and unsanitary conditions inside.
A report filed to the city by, Laverne Vance of Lavan Enterprises Inc., which owns that franchise, attributed the conditions to the fact that the building was being remodeled. "I never seen a rat there," Vance wrote.
The Harford Road restaurant was cited for a heavy mouse infestation, including a live mouse sighted in front of the french fry deep fryer, according to an inspection report.
Owners at the four franchise locations did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Outside the East Baltimore Street McDonald's, business was swift, but many customers complained of bad service.
Still, they said, the restaurant offered what many said is the only cheap, quick alternative downtown.
Russell Henry buys something there every day.
"It's close," said Henry, 35, who lives in Essex but works nearby as a carpenter. "I like McDonald's food. Sometimes there's a little junk around, but that's all McDonald's. With a lot of fast food, there's gonna be some kind of problem."
As a former manager of two other McDonald's, Henry said, he knows it's common to have a mouse problem, which can be easily and quickly taken care of.
But others were less forgiving. Told of the violations, most wrinkled their nose in disgust.
Said Kim Knox, 33: "It should be closed forever."
Tammy Savage, 37, works across the street. She says the service is bad but that she's never noticed any problems with its cleanliness. Usually someone is out and about cleaning up, she said. "Until I see something with my own eyes I'll continue to come," she said. Besides, the food "is so good," she said.
"Some days you gotta cheat, and if you want to cheat, McDonald's is the only way to cheat."