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.

52 thoughts on “People want to know why Betty’s is closing.

  1. I think the move will be much more profitable for you in time. I am so glad you are only moving and not closing..Betty’s has such a great “homey” feeling. I can hardly wait to dine on the patio at the new place!!

  2. Liz, I didn’t know about this stuff. I never had a negative experience as a Betty’s patron. Every time I have ever come in, the customers and the staff have been universally upbeat, which I consider to be a tribute to the pride we all feel there, and the degree of support we all have for this beloved place.
    I for one feel that all of us – especially you yourself and the staff, are the better for what has been accomplished there. The story of what you personally endured to keep your dream alive is a testament to your love and your fortitude.
    I will follow Betty’s to the new location, even though as a pedestrian, it will be more difficult for me to get to the exciting new location. I will be there for closing day, and I will be there for opening day. That is a promise.
    You have earned the support of the people of Columbus, and I have no doubt at all that your restaurants will continue to be worthy of that support.

  3. I am sorry to hear Betty’s is leaving the Short North, but the writing is on the wall – with more and more franchises and regional/national chain business moving into the area, the era of neighborhood solidarity is drawing to a close and the feel is changing. Not sure what that will mean in the next phase, if it means more development or the end of a lovely and local-minded central-city community. We have long brought our friends, family and co-workers to Betty’s, and that will not change, along with the (sweaty summer) memories of the old space. Good luck on this next phase.

  4. I’ll follow Betty’s to wherever it moves too! My favorite restaurant in CBUS will get my business no matter where it is located!

  5. I’ll miss the convenience of Betty’s being in the Short North, but I’ll certainly be patronizing it at its new location. I’ve always enjoyed the meals and ambiance, and I can only imagine they’ll be even better at the newly described space.

    Best wishes always. See you at the new location!

  6. Very sorry to see Betty’s moving. I have been a long time customer especially when I was a tenant in the building. I know that the new location will be a better fit with sustainability efforts and am so happy that Liz continues to lead the way in changing how restaurants and businesses view waste.

    I disagree with another comment that “the era of neighborhood solidarity” is ending. I am still a resident of Italian Village and try to support our local businesses first and foremost. I know of many other residents that do as well. I love my neighborhood and have loved seeing the transformations over the years. As a life-long resident, I know the Short North will continue to evolve and hope it will always retain the neighborly feel. Despite the new developments and additional people, I still bump into neighbors, friends and family up and down High Street.

  7. Liz, you guys are going to come back better than ever. You’re a Columbus jewel, and you have the respect and support of the community. Don’t let the bastards get you down. 2014 will be a great year for you and for Betty’s.

  8. Liz, you truly are a force for good. The Short North has gone through many changes in the last 30 years and as in all gentrifying areas many great things are lost in that process. Most of the artists and galleries left a long time ago, and now it seems that the local eateries are the next to go. Thank you for all that you do.

  9. I have so many great memories of Betty’s V1. My first happy hour after turning 21 was spent there with my brother and his friends nursing a G&T and a bowl of Steve’s Afternoon Delight. I had a magical evening that is one of my favorite memories ever with a good friend as the only patrons in the place during a blizzard. When I was working as a volunteer intern at Global Gallery, your staff was awesome enough to keep me supplied with RC Cola so long as I provided my own cup. I can’t even count how many filafel sandwiches and red skin mashers I’ve enjoyed over the years. We even ate at the table next to Ben Lee when he came through town a few years ago!

    I love Betty’s and will love Betty’s in your new location. I am very much looking forward to the new location which is much closer to my ‘hood and right on my beaten path and I wish you guys nothing but success and mended broken hearts! And if it makes you feel any better, a gal at work who is a resident of Italian Village is very sad to see you go, and doesn’t think you guys have been bad neighbors at all.

  10. I don’t often go to the Short North because of the lack of parking. The fact that you’re moving somewhere that will have an abundance of parking will mean I will frequent Betty’s a lot more often!

  11. Liz,
    Thank you for filling us all in on the reason for Betty’s closing/moving.
    You and CFL have done so much for the Columbus area it is sad that it is not recognized.
    So now after you have helped make the Short North what it is today it’s time to move to a new neighborhood and make it another jewel in the Columbus scene.

    I was honored when I was asked to contribute to the decor of Grass Skirt Tiki Room as I have always enjoyed the look of all of the CFL restaurants.

    Good luck to you and all of CFL in the future.

  12. First the galleries then the local food/pub…of the 10 years experienced the short north the one thing I do know is the innovative people who transformed this location from a ghetto to multi million dollar homes and the “place to be” will find each other in a new affordable, coorporative location. If Elizabeth Lessner is fed up and can’t find a manageable solution there’s not hope for anyone. Onward and upward my dear friend and hero!

  13. Thank you for your transparency. It’s a tough business where we don’t always get to vocalize the truth as it happens. It needs to be known how these different enitities interact with us so they are accountable for their actions. Thank you again for your honesty. I wish you and your crew only the best things in 2014.

  14. Someone needs to kick the butt of the landlord. Maybe the smell is sewer gas. That’s poisonous and explosive. I had that kind of problem with a landlord once. I kept on him. He didn’t do anything until 185 people died in a sewer gas explosion in Mexico City the day he finally gave me the name of a plumber. Turned out to be simple….,an uncapped pipe on the vent.
    Too bad you have to close. What a shame people can’t work together anymore for everyone’s benefit.

  15. Sounds like the landlord was a big problem, for sure.
    But moving Betty’s to its proposed location seems like it’s going to cannibalize business from their other restaurants

  16. I have been coming to Betty’s for years. Any time I have an out of town guest! I always take them to Betty’s.So happy to hear you are just moving! I will follow you guys all over Columbus. Just please keep the Pin Ups and bathroom art!!

  17. I’m so sorry to hear what they have forced on you. It’s not fair. Betty’s is short north. I have had a few first dates in Betty’s, dinners with friends, drinks after shopping, and my favorite ordering to go for a long night in with friends- Mac And cheese is a must!! You have left short north a better place. You have left a lot of memories. I agree with others, I’m thankful that you are not closing. Hopefully you will have a smooth transition and this building will be kinder to you and your staff. You deserve it. Get better soon!

    • Columbus Public Health has long done a great job since Dr. Long took over. Since losing the Director of their Food Safety Program, Bob Kramer, the direction of the department has moved towards enforcement/punitive over education/partnership in public health. We’ve lost a lot of good independent restaurants because of it. Some folks simply opt to open up shop outside Columbus where inspectors are more willing to work with operators, not threaten them and shut them down. Columbus ultimately loses.

  18. This is a tragedy, and you have given it voice, which perhaps all you can do. As a recent emigrant from Columbus to Boston, I can say that I truly miss Betty’s, and will look forward to finding you on a future visit. Best of luck to you in the future. Take care, and continue your great culinary/social/community work!

  19. The short north is dead while it appears to thrive on paper. My old favorite bar was invaded long ago and every other place has changed as well. It’s fast serving the pint house and Bernard’s crowd. Investors are selling “cool and edgy” at the cost of pushing out the people with any real interest in the art and progressive mindset that made the area famous. It’s a shell of itself now and you should be proud of the move to an area more in line with your brand beliefs. I appreciate your sustainability concerns and welcome your move downtown where I, personally, will be much more likely to patronize your establishment anyway. This is exciting for the downtown area and I hope it is just a hiccup in the progress of Betty’s!
    p.s. Best wishes with the mentioned health concerns too.

      • Short North has had some unfortunate shifts in very recent times. The lack of regard for the environment and sustainable development coupled with the deterioration of the actual ‘arts’ that made the Short North Arts District what it is today is worrisome. We’re not douchey yet but if we don’t embrace the values that made us great to begin with, it will certainly go that way. I hope my post serves as a wake up call to the leaders in positions to support better development and small business in the area.

  20. My good friend and I dine at Betty’s when she is in town, and both of us are looking forward to dining at the new Betty’s!! It sounds like the energy savings and recycling efforts alone are a great reason to move! Kudos to you for staying true to your beliefs and moving Betty’s to a place that can support your efforts. I love Betty’s mac n cheese with spicy sausage, and a great draft beer, which I am looking forward to at your new location!!

  21. I have such wonderful memories of Betty’s…..what a story you told. I am sorry for all involved and wish you luck in future ventures.

  22. I would like to say that I have really enjoyed going to Betty’s over the years. I was a frequent guest and I had a very special place in my heart for the cajun style crab nachos. I lived in the Short North for many years, and in my opinion Betty’s was one of the most consistent in kindness and food quality. I hope you find a new home for Betty’s nachos, soups, drinks (I personally loved the Betty Ford Clinic), and all the other great items you all offered! Thank you for the years of yummy food and awesome pin up girls! Hope you keep as much as you can! Wish you could take the paintings in the bathrooms with you!!

  23. Thanks for such a honest recounting of the last year for you (and Betty’s). Reading it left me drained and, by the time I reached the final paragraphs, I completely understood why you had no choice but to pull up stakes. Listen, you love this city, and this city loves you. It’s not just Betty’s that will survive, but also you, Liz. And, best of all, you will go forward with your soul intact–mostly because you are a right fighter and I’m guessing you wouldn’t know any other way. See you in the new location! <3

  24. We just moved Downtown in July and love it. Tip Top is right out our back door. Didn’t make it to Bettys yet due to the cold days. But now I am excited that you will be opening up much closer to us. Liz you have been a champion and leader in the restaurant industry in Columbus. You have done the best you could and we in the industry and customers as well support your efforts. I am proud of what you have done and please continue on your journey. Here’s to a new year and new digs!!! Keep the passion burning.

  25. wow, been there since day 1 and will still continue. This is not the first bad thing I have heard about your “landlord”. i am very sad to see that the new is out placing those that built the neighborhood. And, yes that means the son out placing the much revered father. Keep true to what you do best Liz. the world is better for it. :)

  26. I know a neighborhood that needs a nice sit down restaurant and has free parking. If you are interested please contact me.

  27. I have to bristle at the notion that CFL restaurants comprise anything as big and as corporate and as faceless as those of the “Mitchell/Corso-esque empire.”
    All the CFL restaurants are, in my humble and extremely low-income estimation, places which emphasize the personal drinking and dining experience, where the staff take the time to make one’s experience worth it, and where you come out feeling prouder of your community than you did when you went in, no matter how little you spend, or how casually you dress.
    No Mitchell or Corso restaurant is going to give you that kind of positive experience. It’s all IN and OUT with them, unless if you’re dining with an enormous expense voucher.

    • NeighborhoodDontQuit, I find your cynicism impenetrable. All the CFL staffers I have ever seen appear to come to their attitudes legitimately, from pride of place, and not out of a corporate textbook.
      If I’m misreading you, I apologize in advance.

  28. NeighborhoodDon’tQuit, whoever you are, you have made your point. You are entitled to interpret Liz Lessner’s business decision as disappointing and wrongfully “blaming” the neighborhood, the landlord, the Cbus food inspector, etc. I for one appreciate her transparency and good faith effort to describe the circumstance that led to the decision. In my experience, this sort of direct, interactive communication with the public is very rare. And to top it off, she took the time to respond to your concerns. When you are a leader and make decisions like this one some people are not going to be happy. So be it.

  29. Restaurants are like relationships – when you get involved with someone, you picture your future with that person: your wedding, a couple of kids, a dog and a cat, in a house of your own. You can go into it with the best intentions, and for a while it seems as though you are both walking on the same path with the same goals. But somewhere along the line, both you and the other person change – it’s not anything that’s either of yours fault, it’s just a side effect of time, and goals start to be different. And then eventually, as much as you love the other person, you come to the realization that no matter how much you want it to work, you’ve just grown too far apart for the relationship to continue, and that you’re holding each other back. Letting go and moving on is the kindest thing you can do for each other, and it’s the only way to honor that which you once had.

    I know Betty’s was the first place you threw your heart and soul and creative energy and vision to, and that as your first, there’s always a special place in your heart. You probably have memories of every nook and cranny of that place, and when you do have so many memories, so many good times, hell even the bad times that bonded you and your employees together, it’s hard to move forward without looking back. The Short North isn’t what it was when Betty’s opened, some of the changes were good, some were bad, but I’m glad that you’re just moving to a new location, and I’m glad that you still have enough faith in love to move her and not just close her outright.

    • Becke, that’s exactly what it is. Thanks for understanding. Maybe we argue so much because you understand me so much? ;) Whatever the reason, I am grateful. Thank you.

      On another note, I thought of you and Paul today when I was checking eggs at the grocery store. There was a line of people checking eggs ahead of me, everyone was stocking up for cold weather hibernation I think. I watched: every single person checked their eggs. It occurred to me that the accuser is likely the egg man! Anyway, when I lived closer in, I loved shopping at Weiland’s if you’re looking for new egg supplier.

  30. “To my neighbors, my restaurant has become a burden.” That was ONE person at your Italian Village meeting – and that one person does not represent the voices of all of your neighbors. I, for one, am very sad to see my downstairs neighbor go. Betty’s and places like it make the short north unique, and keep it from becoming Easton. If you are leaving because the rent is too high or the landlord won’t support your sustainable mission, that is understandable, but please don’t pin it on your neighbors. It’s your neighbors who keep your doors open, your neighbors who wait at 10:57 AM on Sunday mornings to be the first table at brunch.

    You will be missed.

    • Thanks for so many kind years of support, my friend. There has been some ongoing contention over the IVS I permit parking, lots of harsh words towards business in the past two years. You’re right though, it’s not reflective of everyone. I apologize it felt that way, it’s not how I feel. Attitudes are shifting, however, I hope the neighborhood stays strong and united.

  31. This is a shame…Beth, we were neighbors in twelve tree’s and I’ve been to Betty’s while in and out of Columbus and have alway’s loved it. Keep the faith, you are a rock star!

  32. I’ll just add my vocie to the chorus of others lamenting this loss for the Short North but welcomign the opportunity for Betty’s to expand into a new (and hopefully improved) spot downtown. I moved away from Columbus about 10 years ago, and Betty’s was among my favorite spots when I left and remains my one, can’t-miss spot I go back to every time I return. I have so many good memories there, and the lynchpin of it all has always been the fantastic, friendly service and great crowd I always found there. Even my wife, a lifelong east coaster with a pretty strong anti-flyover country bias, cites Betty’s as among her favorite bars anywhere. And she sets a pretty high threshold.

    All of which is to say, best of luck to you, Liz. Both my wife and I will look forward to patronizing Betty’s in its new location when it opens, whenever that might be. In the meantime, a pox on the landlord, the unhelpful City employees and the neighbors who apparently didn’t recognize the jewel that existed just down the block. It’ll be their loss.

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