ANNAPOLIS – When Brampton Bed and Breakfast of Kent County needed a new dishwasher, it had to drop $4,000 for a commercial model. Five minutes away, a similar establishment could get away with a $500 machine.
The difference isn’t savvy shopping. It’s an issue of haphazard local regulation of more than 400 Maryland bed-and-breakfast inns, which legislators hope to address this session.
Legislation introduced late in the General Assembly will make bed and breakfasts serving at least one hot meal observe all health regulations governing food handling. Bed and breakfasts with fewer than eight rooms for hire would get a break and not be forced to install commercial-grade kitchens.
The purpose of the bill is to solidify bed and breakfast regulation — which varies sharply by county — while protecting mom-and-pop businesses, said Susan Lawrence, legislative aide for sponsoring Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, D-Charles. A sister bill was sponsored by Delegate Sally Y. Jameson, also a Charles County Democrat.
A bill appointing a study team on bed and breakfasts, also sponsored by Middleton, was vetoed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich last year.
Current standards are based on local interpretation of a 1986 Department of Health and Mental Hygiene memorandum, the state’s most recent directive.
In the memorandum, the department implied it intended to create separate standards for small businesses, but never did. Part of the bill’s purpose is to push this process along, said Lawrence.
Absent a state directive, some health departments follow strict legislation requiring providers of hot food, such as typical bed and breakfast fare like quiche or eggs benedict, to have commercial kitchens — which can cost $26,000. Other localities are loose on the laws, and many say the logic isn’t clear.
“Nobody knows what’s currently in practice,” said Lawrence. “We’re trying to set something on the books.”
“For us, it’s really very tricky,” said Danielle Hanscom, owner of Brampton Bed and Breakfast, with 10 rooms and a commercial kitchen.
Hanscom agrees with stringent regulations and says allowing establishments to serve an extensive breakfast without a commercial kitchen is putting people at risk.
“In the end, it doesn’t make a difference, if you’re serving 16 people or 260, you’re still serving people,” she said.
Establishments that also serve lunch and dinner should have to install commercial kitchens, said Ashley Scarborough, owner of a six-room bed and breakfast in Baltimore that is not required to have a commercial kitchen.
Dinner entrees require more complicated preparation and ingredients, increasing safety risk, he said. Smaller inns generally don’t bother with dinner, said Scarborough, because it isn’t cost-effective for just a few guests.
The Maryland Bed and Breakfast Association opposes splitting the industry along the lines of the bill — inns with eight or fewer rooms and those with more. The group would like to see the bill expanded to include inns with as many as 12 rooms, which is its definition of a bed and breakfast.
“We will be following up with Sen. Middleton,” said Vicki Barrett, president of the association. “We appreciate the fact that he sees bed and breakfasts are different from motels and hotels, but we have some concerns.”
While bed-and-breakfast establishments are committed to guests’ health and safety, traditional health codes aren’t always appropriate, said Barrett.
Putting up choking hazard signs in the dining room or having hosts wear hair nets as required in restaurants will eliminate the homey ambiance that such inns strive for, she said.
“We are very small, hands-on businesses,” Barrett said, “and the kinds of regulations they are trying to impose are not as suitable as they could be.”