Beer, Burgers and Business Talk: Local Merchants in Roundtable Discussion with City Honchos

Salty Dog owner George Kabbez recently received a summons for utilizing air conditioning while keeping the door open because his restaurant, modeled after a firehouse, has an open front but no café seating outside.

While an existing law protects eateries that have air conditioning on while serving outside as long as they have an outdoor café, Kabbez’s restaurant did not meet the criteria and received the violation.

Frustrated, Kabbez brought the issue to the attention of Consumer Affairs (DCA) Commissioner Lorelei Salas and Department of Small Business Services (SBS) Commissioner Gregg Bishop during a local merchants roundtable meant to make it easier for local businesspeople to bring their complaints to the city.

“The inspector said I need a café license,” Kabbez said. “I don’t need a café license; I just want to have my doors open. And for this rule to be changed without us being notified is not fair. To get an air conditioning summons after 21 years when it’s the livelihood and concept of my business is not right. And if you want to put us out of business, go right ahead. That’s what you are going to end up doing.”

Salas said that DCA enforced the laws but didn’t pass them. She did promise to review Kabbez’s complaint.

The roundtable took place Tuesday, Aug. 21 at the Greenhouse Café in Bay Ridge. City Councilmember Justin Brannan, along with the Bay Ridge Fifth Avenue BID and the Merchants of Third Avenue invited Salas and Bishop to lead a conversation about the city’s business laws and how they impact merchants in the community.

Robert Howe, president of the Merchants of Third Avenue, welcomed the commissioners to what he called a very active community. “We have a group here consisting of restaurant owners, building owners, retailers, professional services, personal services and real estate professionals,” Howe said.

Dennis Monier, owner of Tops Restaurant & Bar Supplies, complained that the violations that occur are too costly and that inspectors show up without any warning.

“Some of the violations that I hear about are $1,000, $3,000, and recently I heard that somebody had to spend $10,000 to remove a sign that was protruding from a building,” he said.

Monier also pointed out that the inspectors stop by at the busiest times for restaurants, generally Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“They shouldn’t be able to come into my restaurant on Saturday at six o’clock with a flashlight when I have a full dining room, looking for a fly on my wall or on a whiskey bottle and making the owner stop what he’s doing and walk around that kitchen when he’s got 100 people in the restaurant.” Monier said. He suggested the inspectors come by during the week when it’s less busy.

Brannan said that when he was working with former Councilmember Vincent Gentile they had drafted a bill that would limit the inspectors from coming during what he called “prime time.”

He said he has since reintroduced the bill and is trying to get it through. “It’s a common sense bill that basically says there are certain prime time hours for restaurants and bars when inspectors can’t go in there, like Friday and Saturday nights, when their business is booming, and disrupting or killing their whole business,” Brannan said. “And if a place is dirty, it’s going to be just as dirty on Wednesday as it is on Saturday.”

Community activist Chip Cafiero pointed out that a distinction must be made between law and policy. “As far as visiting merchants at prime time, is that a law or policy?” Cafiero asked. “If it’s a policy, it can be changed by a phone call. I don’t think it’s a law that the inspectors have to come at night.”

Salas said that it was one of the best attended roundtables she had ever participated in, calling it more of a town hall meeting. “We are trying hard to make sure we are responding to your concerns,” Salas said.

She expressed her desire to let small business owners know they have a voice and told the group that, under the current administration, fines have been reduced by 50 percent.

She also said that more has been invested in education for small businesses. She explained that the first time a business owner will receive a visit from a Department of Consumer Affairs inspector is within the first three weeks of opening.

Bishop said there had been a reduction in taxes for small businesses and discussed changes and updates to the system.

“We’re looking at all the regulations and we’re trying to figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t make sense,” Bishop said. “It’s now 2018 and there’s some regulations that were created in the ‘60s and ‘70s when we didn’t have technology, so do we need to still have these regulations in the books.”

Brannan identified himself as a former small business owner. “Small businesses we always say are the backbone of our community. This is what keeps our neighborhood unique,” he stressed. “Without places like Ho’ Brah and Tops, we would just be any town U.S.A.”

He concluded the discussion by adding, “I’ve been a politician for just eight months and before that I was just a guy from Bay Ridge.”

Referring to the commissioners Brannan added, “These guys are my colleagues in government, but my job as a city councilperson is to be your representative. My job is not to carry their water. My job is to try to work with them to make it better for you.”

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