ALBANY — The come-on — complete with photo — is enticing enough: “(Today’s) menu is fried or baked pork chops with rice and gravy and butterbeans. ... All orders come with complimentary blueberry cobbler.”
What makes Albany City Commissioner B.J. Fletcher, who owns and operates restaurants in the city, and other restaurateurs so angry about such online posts is that the blurb is sent out by one of a growing number of unlicensed area food-service providers who illegally cook and serve patrons from their home.
That, Fletcher said Saturday, and what appears to be lack of oversight of a school nutrition program, are among the reasons Albany and southwest Georgia have become a hot spot for the coronavirus pandemic.
“I drove by this house, and there were about 30 people there, and there definitely was no social distancing,” Fletcher said. “Not to mention that the person cooking and serving the food is not licensed. Sure, these places can sell their food cheaper because they don’t have the overhead legitimate restaurants do. And they also don’t have a license, which makes what they’re doing illegal.
“You see these people gathered at these places, and, yes, they’re saving 50 cents on a meal. But I tell you, when they get sick after eating there, I don’t want them to come crying to me.”
Fletcher said such illegal food service generally ramps up during holidays, and with Easter approaching, she said she plans to be “trolling the Internet, looking for violators.”
“First of all, buying food from an unlicensed kitchen is a health hazard, and we have way too many health issues to worry about right now with this virus than to have to worry about people getting sick from eating at one of these home kitchens,” she said. “People raise sand at restaurants if they get an 80 (health inspection) score, but they should take a look at some of these places.
“So, yes, I don’t mind telling these people who are breaking the law that if I get wind of it, I will tell (Code Enforcement). You can tell people B.J. Fletcher will be behind it.”
Fletcher also raised concern over Facebook photographs sent to her that show large groups of children collecting food from a county school bus.
“Something needs to be done about that,” she said. “If the school system has to have a compliance person follow the buses to make sure the students — and their parents — who pick up the food stay the proper distance apart, that needs to be done. We’re not going to stop the spread of this virus until we start following the procedures the governor and local governments have put in place.”
Fletcher said she’s even had complaints about hotels serving buffet-style meals with no social-distancing protocols in place.
Downtown Albany Holiday Inn Express General Manager Linda Davis said that establishment is following companywide guidelines.
“We’re only doing for breakfasts individually wrapped muffins, bananas or oranges and a bottle of juice in a to-go bag,” Davis said.
Complaints had been registered against a pair of local hotels, but Fletcher said a visit from Code Enforcement had curtailed the buffet-style service at those establishment.
“This is a very tough time — for people who are trying to get meals without breaking guidelines and for mom-and-pop businesses that are following those guidelines during this virus,” Fletcher said. “You see franchises like Cracker Barrel that hardly ever advertise, and now I see one of their ads every 20 minutes or so. I hope the government, when establishing guidelines for its bailout programs, realizes these large corporate businesses are going to come out of this fine. It’s the mom-and-pops — the locally owned businesses — that are in danger of going under.”