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Greased out 

Coffee shop owner says an address mix-up burned his business

Jerry McDowell was out of town when he received a strange phone call from a part-time employee of his coffee shop.

"She said there was a guy issuing her an arrest citation for failure to pay the grease-trap permit," McDowell says.

McDowell, owner of Capitol Coffee, a 250-square-foot shop in Capitol View, says a city of Atlanta pollution-control monitor told his employee that the city had sent a $300 grease-trap invoice two months earlier. McDowell says he never received the invoice, which told him he must pay the fee by Dec. 15. The invoice, dated Nov. 1, states, "This is the only notice that you will receive for payment."

The address the city has on file for the coffee shop doesn't include the suite number -- and because the shop is in a loft complex, McDowell thinks his postal carrier didn't know where to deliver it.

While it's not difficult for McDowell to imagine such a clerical error, he says he doesn't understand why the city would slap a citation on an employee who isn't responsible for the operation's overhead.

"If I don't handle this situation that poor girl will have an arrest citation on her record and she'll be responsible for $1,000 in fines," McDowell says. "That's craziness."

Bureau of Watershed Protection Deputy Commissioner Sally Mills says an employee is a representative of the restaurant or coffee shop and receives the citation on behalf of the owner. She adds that the citation is addressed to an individual and not the business.

"[The city] writes the ticket to the person on site and that person brings the owner down to Municipal Court to respond and pay," Mills says. "I don't think owners who are responsible operators leave their staff out to dry."

However, the citation is technically addressed to an individual -- not a business.

In 2003, City Council amended an ordinance to require even the smallest cafes to install a grease trap to reduce sewer overflows caused by grease blockage. According to the ordinance, the "owner or operator" is responsible for paying the permit fee. If it isn't paid by the due date, a $1,000 fine is slapped on the business.

Mills says owners know when the permit fee is due because it is specified in the ordinance, posted online and printed on the face of the permit. (CL found the designated permit fees in the ordinance and online but couldn't find a due date.) McDowell, who paid the annual fee for 2006 in early July, says he wasn't aware that the annual fee had to be paid at the end of the year. He assumed it would be due in July 2007. But Mills says he should have been aware of the law.

"You're deemed to be on notice of the ordinance whether or not you get a notice," she says. "We try to assist by sending out the reminders."

The situation escalated when McDowell went to court on Jan. 24 to try to clear up the problem. He says the court calendar reset his court date without notifying him. When he tried to sort out the mess with a grease-management program supervisor, he says she hung up on him. The supervisor didn't return CL's phone calls. McDowell, a builder who opened the coffee shop in an extra unit of his loft development, says the court postponed his court date to Feb. 20.

Here's the kicker: McDowell will close the shop on Feb. 17 because the city's sewer project, which frequently blocks off the small road to Capitol Coffee, has caused business to drop by 50 percent.

"I developed these lofts when no one was around and gave the city over $2 million in tax revenue," McDowell says. "What do I get for that? They tear up my streets in front of me, close down my business and I get fined."

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