Some local restaurant owners welcome a system that would give diners easy access to their inspection reports, but others worry customers would overreact to violations.
"The trouble with them is when you make them public, it wouldn't be hard to put a restaurant out of business in five days," said Kelly Cotten, owner of Kelly's Sports Lounge, 825 Jackson Blvd.
After 25 years in the restaurant business, he knows a report shows the conditions in the restaurant only on the day of the unannounced inspection.
If a restaurant has a bad day, "You're not showing a pattern of what this restaurant has done for 20 years," Cotten said. "You might do something and get dinged on one deal, one time, and it could shut you down."
Scores at his restaurant have fluctuated in the past five years between an 82 and a 95 out of a possible 100 points, Cotten said. A restaurant must score at least an 80 and have fewer than four critical violations to pass a routine, unannounced inspection.
"That's what you've got to look at, is a pattern," Cotten said.
The South Dakota Department of Health is poised to start posting restaurant inspections online, and the system will indeed show two years' worth of reports, so customers can see if a problem is a pattern.
Restaurant owners also worry that patrons might misconstrue a restaurant's numerical score as a safety rating, instead of a tally of points achieved or lost in an inspection. A restaurant could have a low score with lots of minor violations, compared to a restaurant with a higher score but one or two serious violations.
The state is not looking at requiring restaurants to post their inspection reports in their restaurants, as some states and cities have done.
One local operator went ahead and posted his, though. Tim Nevadomski keeps his inspection report taped to the window of his Curbside Cuisine & Catering mobile food truck. He has nothing to hide - he scored a perfect 100 on a random inspection he received during the Hills Alive festival this summer.
But he said, "If it would have been in the 80s, I still would have hung it up. I'm not perfect."
Nevadomski said he posted his report because people might question the safety of food in a restaurant on wheels, and he wants to assure them that he passed his inspection.
"I don't know if they realize there is accountability," he said. "I want them to feel comfortable and safe with the products I serve them."
Other local operators, especially those that scored well, said they wouldn't mind an online database that would give patrons easier access to their scores.
Some said that the difficulty accessing the reports under the current system means patrons might unknowingly eat at a restaurant that is in the process of having its license suspended or revoked, as was the case last year when El Patron in Rapid City had failed two consecutive inspections.
"They're jeopardizing a lot of people that way," said Aida Compton, owner of Bully Blends coffee shop.
State officials said they have the ability to shut down a restaurant immediately, though, if there is a serious health risk.
But Compton said reports should be online. She said Bully Blends has consistently scored in the high 90s. The shop has a strict procedure for storing and organizing food in its refrigerator, with a chart on the inside of the door showing where to put which items in order of cooking temperature, with ready-to-eat food on top, and food with the highest cooking temperature, like chicken, on the bottom, to eliminate the problem of contamination from any drips or spills.
Compton acknowledged that perception of a restaurant's safety - accurate or not - can have a serious impact on its business.
"Look what happened at Casa del Rey," she said, referring to the Mexican restaurant on Mount Rushmore Road that closed after more than 30 years in business in 2006 when several cases of Legionnaires' disease were traced to bacteria in the restaurant's indoor fountain. The fountain was removed, but business dropped off so badly it forced the restaurant to close, even after former mayor Jim Shaw, one of those sickened by the fountain, went back to eat there to show that it was safe.
"It had absolutely nothing to do with the food, and it put them out of business," Compton said. "This one bad incident shouldn't wipe them off, but it did. People were frightened."
Jerry Scriver, owner of the two Millstone Family Restaurants in Rapid City and one in Spearfish, doesn't think there is an advantage to making the reports more accessible, since it is possible to get them from the state office in Pierre if a person makes the effort.
Formerly the president of the South Dakota Retailers Association, which represents restaurants, he worries about how the public will react to the scores.
"Absolutely it concerns me," he said. "If someone were to walk into your home, for example, maybe you've had a bad week for whatever reason, and they start looking at your underwear drawer or your toilet bowl, and maybe the rest of the year it was spic and span but it wasn't that week for whatever reason."
Scriver said the key to a clean and safe kitchen is a combination of training and a consistent, responsible staff.
"Any time you have a restaurant that turns your help over a lot, you're going to sacrifice your cleanliness and the safe way to handle food," he said.
He said the Millstone and most restaurant operators are working hard to run their kitchens safely, and that training, food science and restaurant safety have improved in the years since he opened his establishments.
"I don't think the public should have any concern about the cleanliness of the restaurants," Scriver said.