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Mobtown Beat

Bare Market

Heeding Customer Complaints, Health Department Shuts Down Oft-Cited Grocery

By Molly Rath | Posted 2/20/2002

The metal grates in front of Penn Super Market have been closed lately, 24 hours a day, forcing the residents of the surrounding Sandtown-Winchester community to trek eight blocks to buy a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. And they don't really mind.

While shuttered businesses are usually bad news for Baltimore neighborhoods, Penn Super Market's closure was greeted with relief from residents who have complained to city officials for years about the store. Last month, after issuing health-code violations against the West Baltimore corner grocery for eight years, the city shut it down.

The Jan. 14 order by Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson revokes the food permit for the Penn, which has been cited repeatedly for selling improperly packaged and expired perishables and maintaining dirty premises (Mobtown Beat, Nov. 14). While some problems were remedied over the years, more violations were found again in December, prompting an administrative hearing and a decision by city officials that enough was enough.

"The recent steps that Penn Grocery has taken to assure an improved, safer, and cleaner food operation are commendable," wrote Donald Torres, an administrative hearing officer with the Health Department, in a report following a Jan. 4 hearing on the store. "However, these recent actions do not offset the major issues that brought this hearing about: repeat, serious violations of food regulations that should have been permanently corrected but never were."

The two buildings at 2400-02 Pennsylvania Ave. have operated as a grocery and check-cashing store since 1990; in May 1994, Robert Chung and Kyo Hee Han assumed operations of the business under the name C&H Family Inc. That same year, the store was first cited by for numerous health-code violations, including inadequately cooled eggs, improperly sealed food, dirty containers, and plumbing problems.

Despite continued citations and pleas from nearby residents--many of whom had difficulty getting to more distant stores due to poverty, age, or other infirmity--the market continued to operate. Early last year, Sandtown residents, working with attorneys from the nonprofit Community Law Center, combed city records to compile a damning profile of the Penn, with an eye toward shutting it down.

The strategy worked. After visiting the store on Dec. 11, city health officials limited Penn Super Market's sale of meat to only prepackaged commercial products. A Dec. 20 inspection showed that the store had ignored that order, spurring the Jan. 4 administrative hearing.

According to hearing records, the Penn's owners acknowledged the violations but declared they were "willing to cooperate and follow all requirements." But in his brief, Torres concluded that the owners' corrective actions and good intentions were outweighed by "overall noncompliance with Health Department regulations and a pattern of chronic and repeat violations. . . . Correcting violations after being repeatedly cited by an inspector does not fulfill the intent of the [food] permit. This eight-year record justifies the recommendation for revocation of Penn Grocery's permit."

On Jan. 14, Beilenson acted on Torres' recommendation, revoking the grocery's permit and barring Chung and Han from operating a food store at that location again. He also signed off on Torres' recommendation that another food store take the Penn's place, and laid out steps prospective store owners should take to avoid its fate.

Gary Maslan, attorney for the store owners, says they are "contemplating selling the business to somebody else who would reopen in the same locale" or opening another type of store there.

George Nance, president of the Sandtown-Winchester Community Safety Coordinating Council and one of the leaders of the closure effort, says Beilenson's action is a victory for the community, but a bittersweet one. "What it means for the community is we have to find somewhere else to shop. But we don't need what we had," Nance says. "That people no longer have to buy a bag of flour with bugs in it or worry about getting poisoned from meat, yes, in that sense it is a victory."

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