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Emanuel set launch reform of city inspections of restaurants

Updated: July 14, 2012 6:39AM

One month after dramatically reducing the number of business licenses in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will take aim Wednesday at another pet peeve of business: redundant city inspections.

The long-awaited reforms will begin with restaurants, which are currently forced to endure as many as 20 inspections before opening their doors.

No wonder restaurants manage to fail at least one of their initial inspections 67 percent of the time.

“The city should be a partner and a resource for businesses looking to start and grow — not an impediment that ties them up with a duplicative, complicated inspection process,” the mayor said in a statement, noting that one-third of all new restaurants close their doors one year after opening them.

“Through these new reforms, the city’s inspection process will be simpler and smarter so that businesses can focus on what matters most: creating new jobs in Chicago.”

The inspection reforms will start with new restaurants immediately and be implemented for existing eateries in the fall. It was unclear when they would expand to other businesses.

They’re designed to reduce the number of inspection visits, modernize inspection scheduling and ensure that individual inspectors are “more consistent.”

The application process for new restaurants will be dramatically altered with zoning and location reviews up-front. The change is designed to reduce the need for costly “course corrections,” officials said.

The number of inspections for new restaurants will be cut in half by using, what City Hall calls a “coordinated team-based approach.”

Start-up restaurants will be provided with “pre-inspection consultations and a start-up-guide.”

The city will also post online information about the most common violations and make inspector checklists available to restaurant owners.

Lessons learned from the restaurant start-up program will be used to reduce the number of annual inspection visits for all Chicago restaurants — new and old.

The mayor also plans to scrap the city’s antiquated, decentralized system of scheduling inspections in favor of a centralized, automated system that, he claims, will pay for itself within five years by reducing administrative costs in the Department of Buildings.

Currently, building permit inspections can only be scheduled through an online form. Walk-ins and phone requests are off-limits.

The Department of Buildings has a team of dispatchers who review inspection requests, verify inspector availability and manually send a confirmation email to each customer. Every day, inspection appointments are printed at City Hall and hand-delivered to inspection supervisors 18 blocks away who spent hours manually reviewing and implementing these schedules.

The new system will allow businesses and residents to schedule permit inspections by phone or online, receive immediate confirmation and review inspection results on the Internet.

By automatically scheduling and prioritizing inspections using location as a factor, the new system is expected to reduce drive times and costs. Supervisors will be free to spend the time they used to waste managing and training inspectors.

The long-awaited changes are the product of restaurant roundtables conducted by the city’s so-called “Innovation Delivery Team.”

Chicago was one of five cities to receive an Innovation Delivery Team grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies started by New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Last month, the City Council approved Emanuel’s plan to reduce the number of business licenses by 60 percent — from 117 to 49 — to save retailers money and aggravation.

On that day, Emanuel made it clear that inspection reform would be next.

The inspection reforms are separate from a self-certification program approved earlier this year for recently inspected restaurants with no history of food-borne illnesses and retailers that sell pre-packaged foods.

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