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Shop Worn

Sandtown-Winchester Residents Take Aim at Oft-Cited Grocery

By Molly Rath | Posted 11/14/2001

According to the cellophane wrapper, the chicken wings at Penn Super Market expired a week ago, and a box of Stouffer's stuffing is 10 months past its best if used by date. A can of soy baby formula has also expired, and a bottle of mustard is so old it has separated and its nozzle is thick with dust.

These were a few of the items for sale on recent trips to the grocery store at 2400-02 Pennsylvania Ave. in Sandtown-Winchester, but similar findings stretch back years, according to city Health Department files, which include reports of improper food handling dating back to the mid-1990s.

Penn Super Market's rap sheet extends to other city agencies. Police records show that officers have been called to the premises more than 200 times this year, as of the end of October. And city zoning officials report that the store has never had a permit to operate as a grocery.

Yet for all the violations and complaints--not to mention firsthand acknowledgement by city officials that it is a problem establishment--Penn Super Market remains open for business under a sign touting fresh meat. The ironies don't end there. Seated squarely in Baltimore's Empowerment Zone and one of the O'Malley administration's recently designated Main Streets communities, Penn Super Market is ostensibly a showcase for improving business conditions in the West Baltimore neighborhood, and as such is eligible for city, state, and federal financial incentives. But perhaps the cruelest irony of all, Sandtown-Winchester activists say, is that many customers have little choice but to continue shopping there. The next nearest grocery is eight blocks away.

"Penn Market is contributing to the bad health of our community, which happens to be 90 percent African-American, that is mostly on public assistance--over 50 percent--and over 50 percent of which are drug users," Woodyear Neighborhood Association officer General Seitu Muhammad says. "It is taking money out of our community, and that's a big effect on our community. And to sell anything other than wholesome food is a disservice to our community."

Muhammad and other neighbors have been battling the market for years, to no avail. George Nance, president of the Sandtown-Winchester Community Safety Coordinating Council, the umbrella group for the neighborhood's many community associations, says residents have sent the City Council "letter after letter and made phone call after phone call." Mayoral aides have visited the site, and zoning and health officials have fielded scores of complaints. And while all have responded in some fashion--conducting inspections, making promises--the issue still isn't getting any traction.

So earlier this year, with the help of attorney Irene Smith from the nonprofit Community Law Center, residents laid plans to shut Penn Super Market down. They combed the records of city departments and agencies and compiled a thick and seemingly damning profile: 27 health inspections over seven years, all of which turned up violations; 235 police responses to calls at the premises during the first 10 months of this year. Of the 34 police reports generated by the calls, half reflect drug, assault, and loitering incidents; residents maintain the market is a magnet for unsavory activity.

Smith and community leaders have scheduled a rally at the store Nov. 17 to make their research public. "The primary objective is to eradicate [the business] permanently and to hold city officials accountable for not really [heeding] the complaints of the citizens," Nance says.

Reaching both goals will be tricky. Changes in ownership and multiple names on city records and state incorporation documents make it difficult to unravel who is actually responsible for the property. And if the past serves as precedent, there is little reason to believe city officials will do more than promise to address residents' concerns.

Penn Super Market's owners, Young and Sang Han of Towson, say they were unaware of the community's complaints about their business. The Hans say they have taken care of all Health Department complaints as they've arisen, and city records note that on several occasions corrective action was indeed taken.

The Hans, like their neighbors, bemoan the criminal activity around their store, saying they themselves have had to call the police many times. Calling the business her "bread and butter," Young Han dismisses the beefs as mere harassment, saying that on numerous occasions customers have threatened to call the Health Department if, say, she was unable to break a $20 bill for them to make change.

In November 1990, the city received an application for a permit to operate 2400-02 Pennsylvania Ave. as a grocery; in March 1991, it received another for a check-cashing operation. Neither permit was issued, but both businesses were in operation soon thereafter. (Muhammad, who has lived a couple blocks from the store since 1992, says it has been there as long as he has.) The Hans say they took over the store in May 1994, which, according to state incorporation records, is when they formed their business, C&H Family Inc. Young Han says she and her husband relied on a business partner to take care of all the paperwork when they incorporated in 1994, and somehow the occupancy permit got overlooked.

In August 1994, Penn Super Market was first cited for health-code violations: inadequately cooled eggs, improperly sealed food, dirty containers, and plumbing problems. The following month, the Health Department ordered the store to close for "unlawfully engaging in a food operation without a valid food permit." It's not clear from city records whether the store was actually shut down, and the business currently holds a Health Department permit to sell food. But Penn Super Market continued to receive health-code citations for the next five years, according to city records: Mouse droppings were observed in the deli area, cats and dogs were on the premises, trash was improperly disposed of, and food items were stored on the floor.

Health Department records indicate there were two inspections this year, most recently on Oct. 25. Bernard Bochenek, director of the agency's Bureau of Food and Institutional Facilities, says that last visit did not generate any grave concerns. "I know that the community is interested and concerned about the market, [but] at the time there were no items that would call for closure," he says.

A visit by a reporter two weeks later turned up numerous old food items, including meat without packaging or expiration dates, chicken wings that expired Oct. 31, and a bloated can of applesauce with a sale sticker on it, marked down to 95 cents from $1.19. But while Health Department reports indicate the agency has told Penn Super Market to date its meat products, there are no laws mandating it do so, making enforcement virtually impossible. "As long as you sell it as frozen food, or if the product is in good condition" based on visual inspection, there is nothing wrong with selling meat past its expiration date, Bochenek says. "The only law that governs dates on food products is [for] dairy products."

When first asked by a reporter about selling expired items, the Hans denied doing so. After being confronted with specific examples of dated meat,Young Han said she sells it because customers request older food products at reduced prices.

Jennifer Mielke of the mayor's Office on Neighborhoods echoes Bochenek's assertion that the city is operating by the book. After recently visiting Penn Super Market at Smith's request, Mielke says, she was sympathetic to the community's concerns but "relatively satisfied" that the various city agencies are responding appropriately to them. "The issues that they've cited haven't been enough to close [the store] down," she says. "It has to be pretty severe for a business to be closed down."

Meanwhile, a zoning-office staffer acknowledges that Penn Super Market's owners "don't have a permit for what's there"--but, the staffer, who declined to give his name, says it isn't likely to be penalized for it. The most recent use permit for the property was issued in 1962, for a bar and a confectionary. But because the Hans filed an application Nov. 1 to continue using the premises for a grocery store and check-cashing service--a sign that they're trying to rectify the permit gap--the city won't stand in their way,the staffer says.

"If no one tells us, no one knows it's there," he says. "And sometimes one hand doesn't often know what the other one's doing, because it's so complicated."

That such a lapse in protocol could occur is alarming to the Community Law Center's Smith. "The sick part of it is that it's not just one [city] agency that's letting this community down," she says. "It's five agencies."

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