When Michelle Garcia’s boutique Bleeding Heart Bakery was ordered closed by city health inspectors in February, the news found its way into newspapers, blogs and other Chicago Web sites. Even her parents, who live in St. Louis, heard.
The fact that inspectors found the Roscoe Village bakery to have committed health violations drew condemnation from many keyboard quarterbacks. Garcia says outraged people called her home. The cost to the bakery’s reputation was immeasurable.
“I felt like as soon as it happened, within five minutes, there were people on Yelp, (having) huge discussions on what horrible people we were,” Garcia says.
Meanwhile, the city shuttered dozens of other restaurants this year without issuing press releases, allowing owners accused of sometimes similar violations to avoid the kind of negative publicity that hurt Garcia's business.
In a three-week span this month, the city closed at least 11 restaurants, but only noted two of the closures in press releases.
Restaurant owners say the city's approach to public relations is far from fair.
“It really endangers the place, in terms of public perceptions,” says Michael James, co-owner of Heartland Café in Rogers Park, which went through a much-publicized shutdown in March. “I still run into people who say, ‘I thought you were closed.’”
Tim Hadac, the Chicago Department of Public Health’s public information officer, is in charge of distributing press releases about health violations and restaurant closures. He says he has to weigh a number of considerations before distributing a press release
“If I put out a press release for every shut down, the press would be numb and would become less cognizant of public health,” Hadac says.
Indeed, if he were to tell the media about every restaurant closure, it would be a near daily event.
To date, the city has shuttered at least 142 restaurants since the beginning of the year. That’s a pace of more than eight a week. And while grappling with issues ranging from swine flu to budget woes, Hadac needs to prioritize.
“Any time I ask myself should I put out a press release, I say ‘Does the media care about this?’” he says. Hadac says he takes into account the scope of the violation, what kind of health hazard the offense presents to the public and whether reporters will care.
But the decision presents another problem for restaurant owners.
“Is it a fair game that they’re playing? I don’t know and I don’t think so,” says Peter Yuen, owner of an Uptown bakery called La Patisserie P. Shut down in July for repeated violations, according to a press release, Yuen counters that the bakery was closed for having an unlevel floor and other violations the release did not mention.
In fact, most health violations aren’t publicized with a press release. And the news is generally reported straight off the release Hadac sends. Rarely do reporters take the time to get the restaurant’s side of the story.
When Rogers Park restaurant Nigerian Kitchen was closed in the spring, the widely reported news drew a lot of “ewws” for the city’s accusation that employees were trying to kill rodents with kitchen utensils.
But the restaurant’s owner says the patron who reported it to the city’s 311 line lied, according to the blog Chicago News Bench, which tracked down the owner. (The owner is out of the country and could not comment for this story.)
The owners were never able to get their side of the story published, which creates a problem for owners, Garcia says.
In her case, Bleeding Heart Bakery contested the inspectors’ claims that its sinks were clogged and garbage was overstuffed. The majority of the fines were dropped and the health department apologized. But the news media wasn’t there to report on those events.
“So in the eyes of the public, we are still just another dirty restaurant with poor hygiene practices, which is just not the case,” Garcia says.
The day the bakery was closed, Garcia sent an email to her network of customers and media contacts, explaining how she felt inspectors erred.
“I felt like it was getting out of control without us being able to say anything,” she says. “We wanted to send it out to customers, because even if they didn’t know about the situation, they would hear about it.”
And with naysayers writing negative comments on the Web, people snapping photos of the place as it closed and television stations broadcasting the bad news, Garcia wanted to tell her side of the story. The bakery, by the way, reopened the next day.
Is there a solution?
James thinks the city could host a database on its Web site, showing the results of the random health inspections, and which restaurants have recently been shut down or reopened. In fact, the city does, though the site is not completely up to date.
Information aggregator Everyblock has a similar function, and Daniel X. O’Neal, one of the site’s founders, keeps a list of publicized closures on his Web site. The Chicago Tribune’s Web site also has a database of inspections.
Sheila O’Grady, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, which represents more than 2,000 restaurants in Chicago, says CDPH should absolutely publicize closures and violations when there’s a clear risk to the public.
“If a public health issue exists in an establishment, then people need to be aware, and the operators need to be held accountable,” she says. “Do we think it should be issued in all cases? Absolutely not.”
But, O’Grady says, there needs to be a fair system for publicizing restaurant closures.
Hadac, whose communications department has been dismantled by layoffs, says he does the best he can, weighing the scope of the violation and the potential health ramifications for the public.
“The lesson is keep a clean shop,” he says.
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.