You're going to be spending a ton of time at the mall in the coming weeks and holiday shopping can certainly help you work up an appetite. But, are those food court restaurants a clean place to eat?
ABC2 News Investigators dug into local health records to find out.
Caution tape is never a good sign. But when it was strung across the food court at the York Galleria, about 50 miles north of Baltimore, over the summer, it was an obvious sign of trouble. Shopper Terry Rohrbaugh was baffled, "Like anybody else, I was a little shocked. I didn't understand what was going on."
What happened at the Pennsylvania shopping mall could happen at any mall food court. They were welcoming guests you wouldn't want to dine with according to inspectors with the state's Department of Agriculture.
Critters there took over the food court, causing a roach infestation so big it shut down every restaurant there for two days in August. A deep cleaning and prolonged extermination was needed to kill all the bugs. Lydia Johnson with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture says, "It wasn't thousands. It wasn't hundreds but it was enough to put us in a position that we were concerned enough to call it an imminent health hazard."
That kind of hazard crawls across state lines here in Maryland too, with pests spotted by Baltimore area health inspectors, although there have been no infestations of that magnitude in recent years.
ABC2 News Investigators found the pests at the food court by looking at two years-worth of restaurant inspection reports for five of the biggest local malls. Our investigation involved records for restaurants at Arundel Mills, Mondawmin, White Marsh, Towson Town Center and the Mall at Columbia.
ABC2 News Investigators focused in on violations cited for roaches, insects and mice. We found plenty that might make food court dining hard to swallow, discovering 12 of the 61 restaurants we examined had at least one pest violation. Those records showed us violations for things like "live roaches in the kitchen", "dead roaches in the freezer" and even "large amounts of mouse droppings on the floor of the front line" in some establishments.
The violations are disturbing to hear, but not unexpected if you ask former Howard County and Baltimore City Health Officer Dr. Peter Beilenson. He says, "In the 20 years I was a health officer, both in Baltimore City and Howard County, we've had some problems with malls."
Beilenson says food courts in malls are attractive to pests for the same reason as other restaurants.
Food is what draws in the pests, and once they arrive, Beilenson says they don't respect boundaries. So, it's not hard for problems to scurry from restaurant to restaurant.
"They more than spread," he says. "Roaches don't know one stall from the other. And they're notoriously hearty little things, so they survive very easily and they can easily go from place to place."
Experts say although pests are often a sign of hygiene issues at a restaurant, they're not considered a critical violation. Beilenson that's there's a reason, "Rodent and roach infestation generally doesn't cause major health public health problems other than disgust."
Sometimes, like with the situation in York, it's more than just a small problem. When infestations are big enough, Maryland's health inspectors will take action and close down a restaurant. ABC2 News Investigators found just one closure among the restaurants we examined.
After a customer complained about a "serious roach problem" at Ruby Thai in Towson Town Center last fall, records show inspectors found "Large quantities of mouse droppings on the floors and equipment" and "live cockroaches". The restaurant was closed for three days and their reports indicate the location is under new management and has been pest violation free since the closure.
Towson Town Center had just two restaurants cited for pest violations, Ruby Thai and Panchero's, who did not respond to our request for comment. White Marsh Mall had one restaurant cited for a pest violation in one report, Chick-fil-A, whose owner says the violation was resolved immediately. Mondawmin Mall had one restaurant cited as well, Popeye's, whose manager told us "No comment".
Arundel Mills Mall had no restaurants cited for pest violations in the time period we examined. But the biggest offender we found was the Mall at Columbia, which had eight restaurants cited for at least one pest violation, including Arby's, McDonald's, Great American Cookie, Famous Wok, Ruby Thai, Bistro Sensations, Cinnabon and Subway. Those restaurants were contacted and did not respond for comment.
Beilenson says the higher number of restaurants cited in Howard County is not indicative of a bigger problem
there, "I would argue, potentially, that our Howard County inspectors have done a really good job and found the things other people may not have. This shows that the public health is working and it got cleaned up, that's actually a good news story."
The restaurants got cleaned after inspectors shined a light in the dark corners. But some customers, like the ones at the York Galleria, say what they found is hard to digest. Patt Smith says, "I still am going to be uncomfortable with it for a while. It may be down the road I don't know. I'll always have it in my mind that they had it."
General Growth Properties, which owns four of the five malls examined in our report, sent us a statement in response to our story, saying, "The safety and well-being of our visitors are of paramount importance to us. Food vendors, whether at a mall or elsewhere, have a responsibility to operate under the highest of health and safety standards. We support and cooperate fully with all health department inspections of food vendors. Any time a violation or infraction is discovered, we require and expect our food vendors to take immediate corrective action."