9 Investigates: Restaurants exempt from health inspections

by: Kathryn Burcham Updated:

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CHARLOTTE —

A new law is keeping county health inspectors out of the kitchens of local bars and clubs.

Channel 9 uncovered a legal loophole that allows businesses permitted by the ABC as "private clubs" to avoid the required health inspections.

Mecklenburg County Health inspector Lynn Lathan told Eyewitness News, "There's nothing we can do. The law says we are not allowed in there."

The North Carolina Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 expanded the state's definition of private clubs to include establishments that the ABC has licensed as private clubs, exempting those kitchens from health inspections.

"We were a little surprised by that. We were like, why would you do such a thing?" said VBGB owner Tom Taddeo.

Taddeo opened VBGB nearly four years ago, registering with the ABC as a private club. He called his previous health inspection scores of 100 and 99 a “’Badge of honor.’”

Since the Reform Act passed, Taddeo said his staff still maintains rigorous county health standards, including food temperature tests and cross-contamination prevention.

Still, Taddeo told Channel 9 he wished the new law didn't tie health inspectors' hands.

"I would prefer they would do what they were doing. I like the standards. I like that they came and inspected," Taddeo said.

Channel 9 obtained a list of private clubs from ABC officials and discovered more than 150 Charlotte businesses are no longer subject to health inspections, including Selwyn Avenue Pub, Tyber Creek, and Corner Pub. Nightlife hotspots like Whisky River and Bubble at the EpiCentre, both which boast full menus, are also on the list.

State law says to qualify as a private club, businesses must have members complete an application, keep a roster of members and their addresses, and charge a membership fee.

ABC officials told Eyewitness News compliance with those regulations has become a major problem.
"They are not in compliance if they are not taking down the names and addresses of everyone who is walking through the door," said Agnes Stevens, a spokeswoman for the ABC.

State officials said cover charges -- often taken at the door of some clubs like Whisky River or Bubble -- do not bring clubs into compliance either.

VBGB owner Tom Taddeo said he believes some private clubs could use the legal loophole to their advantage.

"I think there's probably lots of people out there that have the integrity we do and maintain like we do. But I'm sure there's someone somewhere that doesn't, and says, 'Oh great, I can do whatever I want now,'" Taddeo said.

That is worrisome for state lawmakers like Rep. Tricia Cotham, who told Channel 9, "We weren't really told a lot of things. You brought this to my attention."

Cotham said state legislators were not informed of the health inspection exemptions when the reform act was pushed through last fall.

"You do worry well, could the food have bacteria? Could there be serious problems?" Cotham said.

Cotham sits on the House Health & Human Services Committee and said she now wants to investigate the expansion of private clubs, and what it could mean for the public health.

"If you're able to get a special exemption for one place, and not another, is that really fair?" she said.