31 seats of salvation for downtown

Last night I ventured to Cincinnati to see a grade school friend playing at the Blue Wisp jazz club. Before the show we went to what can only be called a hole-in-the-wall restaurant: 31 seats, maybe 6 people working, and a full house of customers.

It’s been open less than 6 months, to rave reviews by Cincinnati foodies- one of whom is an old friend. We’d tried to go there a few months ago- but showing up at 8:30 p.m. they were out of food and not taking any more tables. That’s right- a restaurant that has the goal of running out of food each night- how strange in the days of boil-in-a-bag chains.

The place has 4 tables for 4- and then 3 counters pushed up against the wall. The menu is for 2 days at a time- and only has 6 dishes available on any given night. To get to the bathroom, which isn’t ADA accessible, you walk alongside the kitchen- with some stained MDF board as the divider. The front door may have a sign in the window- but- if it’s there you can’t really see it.

The food was phenomenal. A gastric overture to juxtaposing things that normally don’t go together. The dessert was simple chocolate chip cookies- but, not like anything I’d had before. The whole bill for 2 was under $50- and if you want wine- you bring your own- no corking fee.

People were finding their way to this little place all on their own, with a little help from Twitter, food blogs, and the gregarious nature of the chef. In short- an urban core success story.

It could NEVER happen in Dayton.

While the number of exits to downtown off I-75 are actually getting decreased, and buildings are being mothballed, while the suburban sprawl developers are talking about 30,000 sq. ft. floor plates as “critical to the success” of businesses like CareSource or Teradata ( both of which seem to need government handouts to stay here), here is a place operating with simple china plates creating jobs and a destination in a building “unsuitable” for modern business.

The fact that they were able to open without an ADA accessible bathroom is a clear indication of what makes Cincinnati different from Dayton- and probably a big part of why they still have these crazy little businesses right next to the corporate towers of excess.

A client in Dayton who wanted to open a tiny family-run grocery store in an old gas station/office building was delayed 9 months because he had to have an ADA bathroom- even though his business isn’t required to have a public restroom. No one except his family will ever see the inside of that $10,000 additional cost that was added to his small business because an inspector was following the letter of the law.

Another client was about to open his restaurant after a 9-month buildout. On the day before opening, he was told that he couldn’t open because of an “exposed brick wall” behind his bar had to have NSF materials- even though the wall had been sealed with sealer- and had been on approved plans from the git-go. More cost, more delay, more frustration.

The stories of the obstacle course created by our local government are endless. One would almost wonder if the people in plans, building inspection, the health department and zoning- aren’t on the take, being paid by the big-box “developers” to slowly choke all re-development and force new construction. The lack of a sprinkled basement in my office building hasn’t made the building less safe or more valuable. The requirement for the thumb-key deadbolt did make it easier for the crooks to get out the door. Hallelujah!

If we want to see small businesses have a chance at regaining a toe-hold in our apparently “worthless” vintage buildings downtown- maybe we need to grant some wide variances to developers- only requiring common sense, instead of coded law. Does a three-hour fire separation really make a difference when a business is on the first floor and residential up top? Is an ADA bathroom a must if there is an existing one? Should building standards of the past be useable for the rehab of these dinosaurs- just to give them a chance not to meet extinction?

31 seats and a chef who runs out of food each night says the answer is yes to me.

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