Tests Say The Water Is Safe. But Flint's Restaurants Still Struggle | KUOW News and Information

Tests Say The Water Is Safe. But Flint's Restaurants Still Struggle

Mar 8, 2016
Originally published on March 9, 2016 2:36 am

The once routine practice of getting a glass of water before a restaurant meal in Flint, Mich., is now fraught with apprehension, since lead pipes started leaching into the drinking water after officials switched to the highly corrosive Flint River as the city's water supply.

The crisis over lead-contaminated water has touched every aspect of life in Flint, and for restaurants, it could not have come at a worse time. In the past few years, restaurants have been resurging, especially in downtown Flint. Now, they are trying to recoup lost business and convince leery customers that their water is safe.

Flint switched back to Lake Huron for its drinking water late last year. But despite the ongoing testing for lead, city and state officials say it's time to go on the offense in regard to restaurants.

George Wilkinson, vice president for the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, says everyone should know "that it's OK to come out and go to these different restaurants for meals, because the water's been tested, it's certified and it's clear. Flint is open for business."

Blackstone's Pub and Grill is one eatery that has helped to revitalize Flint's downtown. Posters on its front windows promote concerts and other events, but one prominently displayed sign lists the results of the restaurant's test results in big bold letters: "Water — lead free."

However, the lunch crowd inside is thin. Manager Patti Bergstrom says business has been slack. "We've noticed a change. We get a lot of phone calls like, 'Oh my goodness, what do you do for your water? How do you wash your dishes?' " she says.

Bergstrom says restaurants know that keeping lead out of their water is crucial. When they rinse produce, for example, they let the water run first for a while, to flush any lead that may have settled in the plumbing overnight. Many restaurants have bought expensive filtration systems to keep the lead out of beverage machines, bar guns, ice-makers and dishwashers. Bergstrom says Blackstone's new filtration system cost about $800, with $250 replacement filters.

Some restaurants buy bagged ice. And unlike Flint residents, they also have to buy bottled water. The Flint & Genesee chamber tries to mitigate that cost by offering free water to businesses twice a week.

Amy Hadd, a secretary eating lunch at Blackstone's, lifts her glass of water. "I feel comfortable drinking the water here," she says. "It's filtered. It's been tested. As long as the results are posted, I don't mind."

The Genesee County Health Department sent a letter to restaurants about how to handle tap water last October, but they were just guidelines distributed before the water emergency was declared.

Anthony Pavone, a supervisor with the Health Department, says inspectors have since tested hundreds of facilities, including chain restaurants.

"A lot of them already had filters on their pop and ice machines, just because they want their product to be consistent at all their locations," he says. "They take every precaution they can for variations in different water supplies."

The iconic Angelo's Coney Island has been operating in Flint for more than 60 years. A sign at the front of the restaurant says: "All of our beverages and ice are made with filtered water." But even here, says manager Carlos Amos, business is down. "The first question out of everybody's mouth is, 'Do you have Flint water?' "

Amos says the restaurant's owner bought a new filtration system and stacks of bottled water to sell to customers who prefer it. On every table, there's a copy of an inspection report showing no lead in Coney Island's water.

Mason Miller, a General Motors retiree eating breakfast at the restaurant, says he doesn't pay much attention to the signs, because he expects clean water. "You would think that would be the No. 1 priority on a restaurant list — to make sure that people could come in here and be safe," he says.

That's an opinion that many of the restaurateurs in Flint hope more people will embrace during a water crisis that has yet to be resolved.

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Often when you hear the city's coming back, you hear about good bars and restaurants that are bringing people out. Over the past few years, that has been the case in downtown Flint, Mich. Now those same restaurants are trying to recoup lost business and convince wary customers that the water they serve is safe. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Sit down in a restaurant, and the first thing you normally get is a glass of water. That routine practice is fraught with apprehension in Flint now ever since the city's lead pipes started leaching into the drinking water after officials decided to use the highly corrosive Flint river as the city's water supply. Flint switched back to Lake Huron water, and there's ongoing testing for lead. Now city and state officials are trying to get people to go out to eat. George Wilkinson with the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce says here's what everyone should know.

GEORGE WILKINSON: That it's OK to come out and go to these different restaurants for your meals because the water's been tested. It's certified, and it's clear. Flint is open for business.

CORLEY: Saginaw Street is a main business strip in downtown Flint. That's where Blackstone's Pub and Grill, one of the restaurants that's helped to revitalize the area, is located. Signs plastered on its front windows promote concerts and other events. But one sign prominently displayed lists the results of the restaurant's water test. And in big bold letters, it reads, water, lead-free. Inside the restaurant, though, it's a thin lunch crowd, and manager Patti Bergstrom says business has definitely been slack.

PATTI BERGSTROM: We've noticed a change. We get a lot of phone calls, like, oh, my goodness, what do you do for your water? How do you wash your dishes - things like that. Hard to convince people when they're not here on a daily basis to understand the concept of what - you know, what's going on.

CORLEY: As she walks into the kitchen, Bergstrom says Blackstone's and other restaurants know that keeping led out of the water is crucial.

BERGSTROM: When we do our rinsing of our produce or anything like that, we use our flushing of our water. We let it run. We flush, flush, flush for 30 minutes or so before we use that at all. And our dishwasher has a filter on it also. So we're pretty much covered.

CORLEY: The restaurant's new filtration system for the pop machine, the icemaker, and the bar in addition to the dishwasher cost about $800. And the filters which must be replaced when an alarm goes off cost about $250 apiece. Over at one of the tables, Amy Had, a secretary who works across the street, is finishing up her lunch.

AMY HAD: I am drinking water - filtered.

CORLEY: So you feel comfortable.

HAD: I feel comfortable drinking the water here - long as it's posted and it's been tested, I don't mind.

CORLEY: The Genesee County Health Department sent guidelines to restaurants last October about handling tap water before the water emergency was declared. Anthony Pivoney is a supervisor with the health department.

ANTHONY PIVONEY: Well, right now we've got them so that they're flushing the water. We want the lines flushed first thing in the morning for at least five minutes so that we can flush any of the lead out. That's shown to be a good way to get the lead that's built up while the plumbing sits overnight.

CORLEY: Pivoney says inspectors have tested hundreds of facilities, including chain restaurants.

PIVONEY: So what we've noticed is a lot of them already had filters on their pop and ice machines just because they want their product to be consistent at all their locations.

CORLEY: The original Angelo's Coney Island restaurant, a Flint landmark, has been around for more than 60 years. A sign at the front says, all of our beverages and ice are made with filtered water. But even here, says manager Carlos Amos, business is down.

CARLOS AMOS: The first question I've heard out of everybody's mouth is, do you have lead water?

CORLEY: Amos says they also bought a new filtration system plus stacks of bottled water that they sell to customers who prefer it. Unlike Flint residents, businesses don't get bottled water for free. An inspection report taped to every table shows zero lead content in Coney Island's water. Mason Miller, a General Motors retiree having breakfast, says he doesn't pay much attention to the signs, though, because he expects clean water.

MASON MILLER: You would think that would be No. 1 priority on a restaurant list - to make sure that people can come in here and feel safe and don't have to worry about, you know, no bad water.

CORLEY: That's an opinion that many of the restaurateurs in Flint hope more people will embrace as businesses struggle with the worry and the costs caused by a water crisis that has yet to be resolved. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Flint. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.