For the past few months, Volunteer Park Cafe (VPC), a corner cafe located on 17th Avenue and E Galer Street, has been developing their vacant, weedy backyard space into a small patio with raised garden beds. Eventually, owners Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt planned on adding a chicken coop and a few tables for customers.
"It’s basically a garden with seating for overflow," says Earnhardt. "We wanted a few more tables for customers to sit while they wait for their coffee."
But their plans have been put on hold after Paul Jones, their closest neighbor, complained to owners about their project. "He seemed to think we're expanding our business, but we're not," Earnhardt says. "Frankly, our kitchen can’t support any more customers."
Jones then filed a complaint with the Department of Planning Development stating VPC doesn't have the permits it needs to operate as a restaurant—it's only permitted to be a grocery store (which is what operated there originally, in 1905). VPC owners allege that Jones hasn't been happy with them since they moved in three years ago, and now he's trying to get them shut down.
"He's about the only person in the neighborhood who's never been in the cafe—except to complain," says Earnhardt. "He's complained from the get-go about parking, about our compost being eaten by squirrels... he's even complained about our garden hose not being hung up properly." Jones couldn't be reached for comment.
Now what began as a fight over patio seating has turned into a battle for the entire cafe: If the DPD doesn't grant VPC a restaurant permit, the cafe will close.
"We were floored," says Earnhardt. "The people who originally changed the store from a grocery to a cafe in 1995 just never got the permit, and it never came up when we took over the space—our lease says we signed on for a cafe."
"It's a unique situation but not unheard of," says DPD spokesman Bryan Stevens. Stevens explains that VPC is the only business operating in an area zoned for residential use. The cafe is housed in a building that was a grocery store a century ago, and the neighborhood essentially grew up around it. When the area was eventually zoned for residential use, the building was grandfathered in. "Technically, a store wouldn't be allowed there now," Stevens says.
So what happens next? The DPD's process for resolving these situations is a little weird: "We'll be evaluating the space as if it were still a grocery store," says Stevens. "We'll look to see if what they propose doing with the space—running a restaurant/cafe—is any more detrimental than what's there now—a grocery store." Stevens adds that there will be a public commenting period to this months-long process, and that comments "help inform our decision."
The DPD has already received letters protesting the restaurant permit; now Burke and Earnhardt are begging for love letters from patrons and "people who think we rock." If you're such a person, you can email Burke here.