Is City Council Ready to Vote “Yes” on Restaurant Grading Ordinance for Detroit?

If Detroit City Council member Scott Benson has his way, there will be a resounding “yes” vote by his colleagues in the coming days for his proposed Restaurant Grading Ordinance (RGO). With enough “yes” votes, Detroit will become the first city in Michigan to implement a “color-coded health inspection grading system” for restaurants, joining New York, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Toronto, and other municipalities that Benson said Detroit competes with for talent, tourism dollars, and conventions.  Yet, just over a month ago, Council voted “no” on RGO but left the door open for a future vote.   

Benson, who represents District 3, hasn’t given up on the proposed ordinance and has been meeting with restaurant owners and associations, community groups, and other stakeholders to modify the proposed ordinance to send back to the full Council for another vote.  

According to Benson, the ordinance – if passed – would authorize city health inspectors to work within a color-coded grading system during restaurant inspections to determine if food safety codes have been met or violated.  Depending on the outcome of such inspections, it would mandate restaurants to post a color-coded placard at the front entrance of their eatery to be viewed by anyone interested in patronizing the establishment.   

Based on the PowerPoint presentation sent by Benson to the Michigan Chronicle, the food establishment inspection process would be unannounced every 6 – 12 months.  After each inspection, the health inspector, based on his or her findings, gives a restaurant a color-coded placard for display.  The PowerPoint further indicates that Green means the restaurant is in compliance, no color sign features translucent QR Code for accessibility to the Health Department’s database, Yellow indicates the restaurant is in the enforcement process and will remain until enforcement is completed, and Red means the restaurant has been closed by the health department. 

Actually, every color-coded placard has a QR code for access to the full report of why a restaurant received a particular placard.  All inspections are based on standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“RGO is really about the need to focus restaurants on safe food handling and being transparent about how food is handled,” said Benson. “And it’s also about educating and protecting consumers.”

While Benson believes RGO will be good for restaurateurs and the people who patronize the 1,700-plus restaurants in Detroit, not everyone is on board.

 “It is a bad policy,” said Charity Dean, president & CEO of the Metro-Detroit Black Business Alliance, who spent countless hours researching the pros and cons of the proposed ordinance. “It’s bad because it really only impacts restaurants.  Grocery stores, gas stations, and other places where people get food are exempt from this ordinance.  The ordinance – if passed – sends the wrong message, not only to the business community but sends the wrong message to Detroiters because if the ordinance is important, then there needs to be one that impacts every public place where food is served in the city.”

Godwin Ihentuge, owner of Yum Village, a Caribbean cuisine restaurant in the midtown sector of the city, sees good and bad in the proposed ordinance.

“I think something like this proposed ordinance could definitely be beneficial,” Ihentuge said.  “And from my understanding, it is to help combat foodborne illnesses and things like that associated with restaurants.  That’s good in itself.  However, the problem is that I think there are better solutions and more things that can be done to put restaurants, especially ones owned by minorities in better positions to succeed.  This ordinance can be an important step ‘after’ other important steps are first put in place.”

Ihentuge points out that many Black-owned restaurants in the city have just come out of a crippling pandemic and are trying to survive after 40% of such restaurants closed permanently over the past two years.  “They need help, not another ordinance,” Ihentuge said.

Restaurateur Stephanie Byrd, owner of Flood’s, The Block, and Garden Theater, spoke on the current inspection system.  

“I’ve seen no evidence that the inspection system in place isn’t working,” Byrd said. “And with more funding for the current system, it can be better.  I am not a supporter of the proposed ordinance. One of the main reasons is that the city doesn’t have an infrastructure to support it.  There simply are not enough food and health inspectors.  There’s been some debate about that, but I’m clear there are not enough.”

According to creditable sources, in 2018 there were 22 inspectors.  That number is significantly down. Earlier this year, Council approved $200,000 to add more inspectors, perhaps getting up to 17 or more.  Byrd said bringing on more inspectors is good, but it takes time to hire and train the right candidates.

Byrd and her family have been restaurant owners in Detroit for decades.  However, Byrd said, she is “more concerned about the newer and smaller Black-owned restaurants who may get flagged for something and have to wait 30 days to clear up the infraction, which could kill the business.”  

Dean said that her organization wants to work with Benson to find a solution because Metro-Detroit Black Business Alliance advocates on behalf of small businesses, especially Black-owned and operated entities. Yet, Dean is concerned about the ordinance presenting more  obstacles for Black-owned restaurants in Detroit to navigate.

“If you are a Black-owned business in Detroit, it’s already hard,” Dean said.  “It’s hard to find labor, difficult to get money, and hard to navigate the city’s bureaucracy. We need more focus on how we make life easier for small business owners and not over-regulate Black-owned restaurants employing Black Detroiters. We don’t need more regulations.”

According to Benson, the proposed ordinance is slated to go before a public hearing on Monday, Oct. 24.  If successful, the proposed ordinance could be sent to Council for a formal and final vote as early as Oct. 25.  Benson is optimistic about a favorable vote this time around.    

“This is not about health inspectors telling restaurant owners, ‘we got you!’ during inspections; it’s about getting restaurants to handle food safely for the wellbeing of people,” said Benson, adding when approved the ordinance would go into effect around October 2023 following a pilot program to get restaurants, the public, and other stakeholders educated and acclimated to the intricacies of the new ordinance. “The ordinance is about education, transparency, and food  safety for consumers.” 

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