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Detroit Restaurant Owners React to City Council’s Rejection of Proposed Food Safety Ordinance

A group of Black restaurant owners led the opposition of the proposed health code Restaurant Rating system

The blue letter grade of a NYC Health Department inspection is posted to a restaurant window. The Detroit City Council rejected a proposal Tuesday that would have required restaurants to post a color-coded sign to inform diners of the results of their health department inspections. Sorbis/Shutterstock
Serena Maria Daniels is the editor for Eater Detroit.

Restauranteurs are applauding the rejection by City Council this week of a proposed restaurant food safety ordinance that would have required owners to display the results of city Health Department inspections for the all the world to see.

According to Crain’s, members of City Council voted 6-3 against the proposal on Tuesday, bringing to an end efforts led by council member Scott Benson to enact the policy, which if passed, would have put the city in line with other municipalities across the country that must place printed letter grades in their window that indicate how a food business did on previous inspections. Instead of using the often criticized A-B-C letter grading system used elsewhere, Detroit would have adopted color-coded signs that would have been required to be displayed in the windows of the 1,706 restaurants inside city limits that illustrate whether a food business is in compliance, needs improvement, or has been ordered closed for more serious violations.

The six council members who voted down the proposal included Council President Mary Sheffield, President Pro Tem James Tate, and Fred Durhal III, Latisha Johnson, Gabriela Santiago-Romero, and Coleman Young II.

Among those who vocalized their opposition of the proposal was Stephanie Byrd, co-owner of Flood’s Bar and Grille downtown, The Block, and the adjoining Garden Theater in Midtown.

“Scott Benson was trying to fix something that actually wasn’t a problem,” Byrd told Eater on Wednesday.

Byrd is a member of the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance, a group that formed during the pandemic that advocates in favor of Black business owners throughout the region. She said that she only became aware of the proposal in the past few months when the organization’s CEO Charity Dean (who also owns Rosa cafe in Grandmont Rosedale) began getting the word out over the summer about how the ordinance would disproportionately impact Black restaurant owners.

“It was tone deaf. [The City Council] really was not sensitive to the issues that continue to plague Black restaurant owners specifically,” says Byrd. “It came at a terrible time when many businesses, honestly many restaurants are closing and we’re still recovering. We’ll be recovering for years to come. So to throw this in was terrible timing.”

Benson’s proposal was three years in the making, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic upended operations of restaurants across the country. Once restaurant owners and industry groups began hearing this summer about what could have been in store, they pushed back and made several recommendations for compromise. Industry advocates did propose several amendments, including the use of a QR code in place of a color-coded sign.

On Tuesday, a memo of opposition to the proposal was sent to council members with the names of more than 100 Detroit restaurants, the Small Business Association of Michigan, and the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association that called on officials to reject the proposed ordinance.

According to Crain’s, Councilwoman Santiago-Romero said on Tuesday that she had initially been in support of the measure, citing increased transparency for diners. But as concerns among business owners have mounted, the council member — who herself has a background working in restaurants — now wants to see more support services become available to restaurateurs that have yet to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

The proposal was rejected just a few weeks after Lafayette Coney Island reopened following reports of a rodent problem. On Tuesday, Benson pointed to the issues that arose at the downtown diner as an example of the need for the ordinance.