In early June 2012, just after a busy lunch on the first hot day of summer, a zealous health inspector cited Betty’s on several non-critical, and non-food safety issues, as well as one legitimate critical issue caused by a faulty cooler that needed a shot of Freon. The cost to remedy what the inspector cited us for cost more than $50,000 and I was ordered to remedy the items in a very short window of time (2 weeks). The inspector threatened to initiate ‘shutting us down’ if I didn’t ‘voluntarily’ close the restaurant right then. The critical problem was immediately fixed, the HVAC repairman was on site within 10 minutes. Since the broken cooler was fixed within the hour and already holding temp while the inspector sat at the bar writing up his report, I asked if I could sell other food in the meantime (I’d already thrown away all the food in the faulty cooler). I wanted to keep the bar open so I could make rent that month. The inspector said no. He told me that my voluntarily closing would look at lot better than us getting shut down and if he shut us down, it would take us much longer to reopen due to the hearing process. Essentially, he bullied us into closing. Ohio Department of Liquor Control won’t allow alcohol sales without food sales and while I had plenty of food I could safely sell, the inspector wouldn’t allow it.
This was not the health department I’d long known and defended publicly as a partner in food safety. This was not the organization that I’d served on several committees with under the leadership of the now retired and beloved Bob Kramer. This isn’t the department that I partnered with in supporting and implementing the controversial color coded system when I was president of Central Ohio Restaurant Association. Betty’s kitchen manager regularly attended the Food Safety Advisory Committee meetings on my behalf at the Health Department until the group disbanded after Bob Kramer left. The Health Commissioner, Dr. Long, had once brought her daughter to Betty’s for a mock health inspection during Take Your Daughter to Work Day. That friendly, helpful, partner-in-safety department was no longer. This was now a bullying organization with the ability to cause mortal wounds to a struggling small business coming out of the recession, and they did.
I’d been released from the hospital the day prior to the inspector’s visit following surgery for gallbladder turned liver tumor. I wasn’t supposed to be at work as I had a tube coming out of my rib cage area that was draining blood from my liver into a pouch that was taped to my hip, infection was a big risk. I was in quite a bit of pain and shock following surgery and had no energy to fight much less attend the mandatory hearing and deal with media at the health department later that week. I had to do so in order to reopen my business. I went to the hearing against doctor orders. I spoke to media at the hearing, even to Channel 6’s Tom Stussi who shoved a microphone and camera in my face and asked questions about my liver while I stood there politely smiling and clutching the blood pouch taped to my hip that was painfully pulling at the wound on my rib cage. I did pay the $50,000 I didn’t have to fix what the inspector said was broken but I didn’t agree the repairs were necessary or warranted. This was the first and most important nail in Betty’s coffin, we never recovered.
Our ventilation system has never worked despite sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into it through the years. The reason is simple: our landlord has our AC unit placed a block away from our space. Our air conditioner is located a block down the street, four stories above Rigsby’s. We pay to force air a block down the street into the Betty’s space so our electric bill is higher than that of my largest restaurant. Sustainability aside, the cost to cool the space, even unsuccessfully, has grown impossible. An overly hot kitchen destroys kitchen equipment and causes coolers to shut down, needing more costly repairs while putting food safety at risk.
I’ve asked for years to move my AC unit to the back of Betty’s or to at least above Betty’s but the landlord has never allowed me to do so. Faulty ventilation means it gets unbearably hot the moment the temperature outside hits 70 degrees. By June, the dining room regularly hits 100 degrees and the kitchen becomes known simply as “hell.’ To get the AC working efficiently and most sustainably requires changes to my lease that the landlord won’t approve and about $40,000 in work. We’ve grown to dread summer each year. Our space is in dire need of an update and refresh, mostly cosmetic for things like new floors and some fixtures and equipment, which would cost another $20-50,000. Customers endure meals in our 100+ degree dining room many days of the summer.
In addition, despite my best efforts, our landlord refuses to recycle at our building. I pay for a giant landfill trash dumpster I don’t use because we recycle everything at Betty’s. Everything that goes through a restaurant is recycleable. The building we are in houses a total of 3 restaurants, 4 retail stores including Global Gallery, 3 stories of offices and residences including an environmental organization, but we don’t recycle at our building. Consider the amount of waste we generate, none of it recycled on site! I store piles of cardboard, glass, and aluminum in the Betty’s basement and a couple times a week we pay an employee to fill his car with the recycleables and drive them to recycling dumpsters at Goodale Park. Our Eartha container that holds our food waste is in the kitchen because our landlord won’t allow it anywhere on the property. There’s plenty of space for a recycling dumpster on the property, we just aren’t allowed to place one anywhere.
The plumbing to the building is messed up, no one knows why. There’s a sewage smell that comes up during weather shifts, some days it hits you in the face. When I complain to the landlord, they tell me to talk to the City. When I talk to the City, they pin it on the landlord. I’ve tried for years to address it but we can’t pinpoint it. In the meantime, there are days you can attempt to get lunch but be greeted with giant wafts of sewage from somewhere deep under the building. The smell of raw sewage doesn’t do much to keep customers inside.
The City of Columbus assembled a work group to address parking issues in Italian Village that I had the honor of serving on. At one of the meetings, an Italian Village resident shared that the residents don’t feel that the business tenants in the area have made the same investment in the neighborhood as the residents have. That told me that the synergy that was long shared between business/residents had shifted. At one time, we were on one team: Team Short North. We worked side by side to work on safety, parking, and other neighborhood issues together. Now we were on opposite teams. That meeting told me everything I needed to know: my business had become a burden and nuisance to my neighborhood.
Betty’s has been built on a simple principal: to leave our neighborhood better than we found it. To my neighbors, my restaurant had become a burden. Our other mission is sustainability. Nothing about our business was sustainable, we were wasting energy and it was close to impossible to recycle there. The final piece is financial: high rent, rising food cost, high utilities due to inefficient HVAC, and the area revitalization projects were eliminating parking and causing power outages and other problems not condusive to running a profitable business.
It was clear that closing the restaurant was imminent. I knew we needed to close or move, the space wouldn’t work for us anymore, we weren’t able to profitably run a business that was operating sustainably and comfortably and the nearby residents were tired of the businesses for a whole host of reasons but most recently, because of parking.
As a neighbor unable to make positive, meaningful contributions to the economic, environmental, and safety of the Short North, I know and knew it’s time to turn out the lights.
We had nearly 14 great years. Neighborhoods change and with it come casualties and learning experiences. I hope Betty’s is a good learning experience for all involved, I know it has been for me.