open sign
Restaurant signage in the Cass Corridor was photographed on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (BridgeDetroit Photo by Malachi Barrett)

Detroit health inspectors handed out more than a thousand food safety violations this year to restaurants across the city, and the details are easier to find than residents might think. 

Inspectors found 267 of the city’s roughly 1,900 licensed restaurants were not in compliance with the state’s food safety standards since the start of this year, with 1,407 violations handed out among them. Twenty-six restaurants had double-digit citations, according to records posted by the City of Detroit, while 28 others had one offense. 

Some establishments fixed issues before their next inspection and later became compliant again. However, DHD reported 160 inspections revealed violations that remain uncorrected. A proposed ordinance that would require food establishments to prominently display health inspection results has sparked new interest in the accessibility of food safety information in the city. 


The list of non-compliant restaurants is wide-ranging, including a handful of chains as well as well-known upscale establishments. School and hospital cafeterias were on the list, as well as entertainment venues, food trucks, churches and shelters.

The offenders aren’t concentrated in any one part of the city, either. Popular establishments in the downtown and Midtown areas received citations, as did smaller restaurants and coffee shops spread across Detroit’s neighborhoods. 

Detroiters who want to know the status of their favorite hangout can use an online search tool to find a summary of inspections dating back to 2016. The information, made available since 2019, gives residents access to potentially valuable information, but the reports also can be difficult to interpret. 

“The core part of the city’s open data portal is to allow people to download data and then search it themselves, but we recognize that (is) not easily accessible for the general public,” said Scott Withington, environmental health general manager for the city.

Inspections give a snapshot of the restaurant’s condition at a specific point in time and violation descriptions often contain vague terms and legal descriptions. The inspection reports are not updated in real-time. The data generally lags one month behind, Withington said, but the health department is working on technical improvements so reports can be updated more frequently.

The Detroit Health Department does not assign grades or scores, nor does it make definitive statements about whether a restaurant should be avoided. Instead, an establishment is marked as compliant or not compliant. A red “X” or green check mark is the clearest signal of whether an establishment is meeting standards. 

Being out of compliance with Michigan’s Food Law doesn’t necessarily mean a restaurant is being shut down. In fact, non-compliant restaurants can still serve customers while working with the health department to get things in order. Restaurants also get a chance to fix issues during an inspection, which gives them a better chance of remaining compliant.

Withington said there is “some subjectivity” in the work of health inspectors. For example, Withington said, if an employee doesn’t wash their hands but a supervisor catches it, the inspector will be less likely to cite a violation.

“The gold standard we’re looking for is active managerial control,” Withington said. “We recognize that humans are not perfect, but … is the management taking adequate steps to train and supervise their employees, and ensure the equipment and supplies they need to run a safe operation are present? That’s the ultimate goal we want every restaurant to achieve.”

Health officers can suspend a restaurant’s license and order its closure if an imminent health hazard is discovered, Withington said. Restaurants have several chances to fix less serious issues.

“Consecutive recurrences of the same category of violation can eventually lead to closure, but our goal is to get them in compliance,” Withington said. “We definitely want to avoid that if it can be avoided.”

With 23 violations, Urban Soul Restaurant had the most of any eatery inspected this year as of Aug. 31 according to city documents. The violations were cited in a February 2022 inspection and included nine priority violations – the most serious category. Seven issues were corrected during the inspection. 

The issues ranged from food being stored at the wrong temperature to pests in the facility, cleanliness violations and improper handling of “toxic materials.” Urban Soul, located in a strip mall on Lafayette Street just east of I-375, was compliant with health standards in eight of 17 inspections since 2016.

Urban Soul Owner Joseph Thompson told BridgeDetroit that most of the issues were “due to an employee problem,” including frequent staff turnover as well as efforts to train workers on hand washing and checking the temperature of products, he said. 

“The health department, I can’t say anything bad about them,” he said. “They always try to work with us to make sure we get the proper people in place.”

Thompson said staffing has been a major issue since the start of COVID-19 and he’s had employees quit rather than go through health and safety training. 

“That’s the biggest issue, training people and two or three weeks later they’re out the door again,” Thompson said. “Our dining room has been closed for two years now. We hope to open it in the next few weeks but honestly I don’t know if we’ll get the employees to open it.”

Could color-coded signs improve transparency? 

Council Member Scott Benson thinks food safety guidance could be clearer. He’s proposing a contentious ordinance that would require food establishments to put up color-coded signage reflecting health inspection results. Signs would be issued by the health department and posted outside the establishment’s entrance. The ordinance makes no improvements to inspection or enforcement procedures. 

A green sign means the restaurant is in compliance. Yellow means the restaurant failed several times to correct serious violations and is in the health department’s enforcement process, and red means there were enough issues to get closed by the city. Each sign would come with a QR code that links customers to online inspection reports. 

There would be six restaurants with a yellow card if the ordinance were active today. Two enforcement hearings were conducted this year and four others are pending, according to the health department.

Far more restaurants would have a red sign if Benson’s ordinance passes. DHD closed 121 restaurants for non-payment of fees or illegal operations. Three more were issued cease and desist orders based on “substantial food safety hazards.”

Benson said the signage creates more transparency and will “better educate our consumers and prioritize public health, safety and welfare in the City of Detroit.” 

But some groups representing Black businesses, the city’s restaurant and lodging industry and Greektown are vigorously opposed to the idea. At a public hearing this week, representatives said color grades eliminate gray areas in inspections. The ordinance doesn’t raise safety standards, they said, but it could send a false impression of whether a restaurant is unsafe. 

“Black businesses need support. They need money. They need staff. They don’t need more regulation,” said Charity Dean, executive director of the Metro Detroit Black Business Alliance.

Detroit’s City Council is scheduled to vote Nov. 1 on the ordinance.  If approved, the grading system would go into effect Oct. 2, 2023.

Health inspectors aren’t at full strength

Detroit is home to approximately 1,900 licensed food service establishments and has just 10 food inspectors to share the responsibility of monitoring their compliance. 

Health Department Deputy Director Christina Floyd said five vacancies are in the process of being filled. Two more inspectors could be added through a budget allocation that hinges on approval of Benson’s ordinance. That would raise the total to 17 – around 112 restaurants per inspector, at full strength.

Benson said the health department is prioritizing the hiring of inspectors who speak multiple languages, to improve communication with Detroit’s rich variety of ethnic food scenes. 

Health department officials insisted this week that they have enough staff to keep up with the workload. Detroit data shows 1,672 inspections were completed by the end of August, with 3,535 violations given.

Withington said complaints from residents are an important tool the health department uses to keep tabs on potential issues. By August, complaints from Detroiters resulted in 50 violations being found at 105 restaurants. Seven restaurants were found to be out of compliance after complaints triggered an inspection.  

Patrons can call (313) 876-0135 or complete an online form to report complaints regarding a restaurant, bar, coffee shop, school, catering facility, or other facility serving food in Detroit. 

Withington said health inspectors have investigated every complaint received this year within five days, and the “vast majority” are investigated within 48 hours. 

Tips from Detroiters led to the temporary closure of Lafayette Coney Island this summer. The health department received complaints of rodents in the building and saw evidence posted to social media, triggering an inspection that resulted in a cease and desist letter. Inspections in the last two years show recurring problems with pests and employees handling food with their bare hands. Lafayette was compliant in 15 of 23 inspections since 2016. 

Withington said residents shouldn’t feel skittish about asking a restaurant to explain its compliance with health standards. 

“If you see violations for a restaurant you go to, you can ask the restaurant about it and what they’re doing to address that issue,” he said. 

“The restaurant manager and employee are the first complaint recipient in most cases,” Withington added, “and how they respond to the complaint has a big impact on how that customer feels about that establishment.”

How to read health inspection reports 

A searchable database includes inspection results for establishments under the jurisdiction of the Detroit Health Department. This doesn’t include grocery stores, liquor stores, gas stations, which are inspected by the state of Michigan, or food trucks licensed outside Detroit. 

Enter a restaurant’s name in the search box to find out whether reports are available. Each establishment has its own webpage with details about its owner, how often inspections occur, license number and a history of inspections going back to 2016. 

Each inspection has a date and a category, making it easy to find out how often complaints are filed. Clicking on an inspection report opens a drop-down menu showing more detail about the number of violations and their description in the Michigan Food Code

There are three categories of infractions used by the health department, based on guidance from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They include:

  • Core: The least-hazardous violation category, typically relating to general sanitation, operational controls and maintenance issues. These must be addressed within 90 days. 
  • Priority foundation: These are issues that contribute to the risk of foodborne illness but could be fixed with specific actions, including personnel training, equipment upgrades and better safety controls. These must be fixed immediately – or within 10 days for violations that don’t create an immediate health hazard. 
  • Priority: The most serious category of violations, describing issues that increase the risk of foodborne illness or food poisoning. These violations are related to cooking, cooling, and handwashing and must be fixed at the time of an inspection. 

Answers to other basic questions can be found on the website’s “about” page. Download data on restaurant inspections and violations cited per restaurant via the city’s open data portal.  

Most violations of 2022 

Besides Urban Soul, L. George’s Restaurant Coney Island at 16835 W. Warren Ave. ranked No. 2, with 19 violations from the Health Department during its last inspection in August, including improper food storage, employees washing their hands in a sink used for food preparation, and failure to mark the expiration date of refrigerated food. 

Seven of the violations were corrected at the time of inspection. The coney island was found to be compliant in 11 of 15 inspections since 2016.

The restaurant has four locations across Detroit; another on Joy Road had 10 violations during a June inspection, and half were corrected at the time. That L. George’s Coney Island passed 11 of its last 15 inspections. Calls from BridgeDetroit to both restaurants did not receive an immediate response. 

Tap MGM Grand, a sports bar in the MGM Grand Casino, had 17 violations during an inspection in July. All seven priority violations were corrected during the inspection, but issues like gnats in the facility, inaccessible handwashing sinks, and cleanliness of surfaces that come into contact with food, remained. The sports bar was compliant in seven of 12 inspections since 2016.

Overall, 40 violations were given out this year between various restaurants inside MGM Grand. Main Kitchen, The Lodge, Breeze, D Prime and Detroit Central Market were each determined not compliant with health standards. Detroit Central Market became compliant after its second inspection of the year in August. A message left with MGM Grand was not immediately returned.

Taqueria Los Altos had 16 violations flagged during an inspection in March. Seven violations –  including the presence of dead or trapped pests – were corrected immediately. A handful of core violations remained for things like damaged equipment and plumbing, failure to seal openings to prevent pests from entering and the lack of a ventilation hood to prevent grease or condensation from collecting on walls and ceilings.

The restaurant failed four of its past five inspections. Taqueria Los Altos was compliant in only four of 10 inspections since 2016. BridgeDetroit could not reach a representative Wednesday. 

Golden Wingz Hip-Hop Cafe had 15 violations during its last inspection in July. None were for the most serious category, and six were corrected immediately. Others, for issues including dirty surfaces, damaged facilities, broken equipment and missing food thermometers were not fixed at the time of the inspection.

The cafe was compliant in five of its last seven inspections. A representative with the restaurant declined to comment when contacted by BridgeDetroit on Wednesday. 

Kayleigh Lickliter contributed to this report.

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