Benson: Proposed Detroit inspection ordinance ‘not about closing restaurants’

Capers Steakhouse owner Gary Jacobs said he understands inspections are necessary and called them a good thing. But he’s “very much” against Benson’s proposed ordinance.

“The public sees things like those signs and believes one thing, but it’s not the entire story,” said Jacobs, who opened his business at Gratiot Avenue and Eight Mile Road in 1982. “The health department always gives a restaurant owner a certain amount of time to correct an issue. You could have an owner who gets a certain rating, then works quickly to do all they can to correct the issue. But that report stays with them for a while before an inspector can get back out to reinspect. That issue could have been fixed quickly, but the inspectors are overwhelmed and can take a while to come back out. That doesn’t seem right.”

Benson has requested a meeting with the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association to discuss the proposal and its intricacies, MRLA President and CEO Justin Winslow said in an email to Crain’s. The meeting is expected to take place sometime this summer. Winslow believes Benson’s proposal has the potential to negatively impact Detroit restaurateurs.

“The devil is in the details with restaurant inspection grading and the last thing anyone wants right now is a policy that would result in more restaurant closures and disinvestment in Detroit as its hospitality sector seeks to recover from the pandemic,” Winslow said.

The ordinance would mirror a similar one implemented in 2010 in New York City, where restaurants are required to post letter grades inside their establishments that correspond with scores received from sanitary inspections. Benson’s proposal would replace a current ordinance and display the most-recent results.

Benson originally called for the system to be implemented in 2019 following a three-year hepatitis outbreak in some metro Detroit restaurants. The councilmember has toured some Detroit restaurants and talked with some operators he declined to identify. A pilot program would see some restaurants volunteer to have the placards displayed in their establishment.

Community engagement is a part of the plan, too, as a way to educate residents on what the program means.

Boethler said that, as far as possible penalties, the health department would defer to law enforcement. Once penalty sanctions are approved, removing the sign would be classified as a misdemeanor. If a restaurant operator puts up a counterfeit sign, that could warrant other legal violations, according to Boethler.
Benson said the plan is just to keep restaurant operators honest.
“The restaurant owners don’t love it, but it’s not onerous,” Benson said. “It just highlights what they’re doing, and most of them are doing the right thing.”

Capers Steakhouse owner Jacobs agrees with Benson on that front. He sees the proposal as another land mine for already overwhelmed restaurant owners to tap-dance around,

“If the health department is doing its job as it should, then you don’t need this report,” Jacobs said. “Scott Benson is wrong. He’s got this wrong.”

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