As its name suggests, popular local watering hole Small Bar (4628 Park Boulevard, University Heights) is, well…small. But al fresco relief from a tightly packed but enjoyably raucous interior is available on the outdoor patio. Or at least it used to be. Though the venue has offered patio-space to patrons since opening seven years ago, the City of San Diego has seen fit to have owner Karen Barnett shut it down completely, stating it was never permitted—despite City officials having conducted numerous inspections of the property before and after Small Bar opened and failing to note this. Adding to the oddity of it all, the City inspector who brought the patio-issue to light wasn’t even there to address this issue; they came to investigate an issue with the restaurant’s exhaust system after a neighbor complained about a wafting hamburger scent. That issue has since been fixed. Barnett wishes correcting the permitting issue was as easy, but despite her efforts to expeditiously submit permit applications, the City is requiring a hearing that they have yet to set a date for, and requiring the patio be closed until said hearing and approval. Many regular patrons and casual fans of Small Bar find this excessive and unreasonable. Supporters of Barnett and her business have gone so far as to launch an online petition to reopen the patio via Change.org and a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to help with permitting fees and fines. To find out more about this complicated development, we sat down with Barnett to get her side of the issue.
What has the City required of you and what is the time-table for this issue being resolved?
Karen Barnett: The supervisor of the main contact for the case called me last Monday saying that neighbors were emailing photos of people on the patio, which was against their Civil Penalty Notice that I was issued in late-June. I was, apparently, incurring daily fines for staying open and not immediately shutting down, and in less than 75 days had accrued $30,000 in fines. That number would scare anyone, and I instructed the staff to shut the patio down. Friday morning I received an email from Code Enforcement informing me that a hearing is being scheduled, but no date has been set. I have no idea how drawn-out this process will be, but I hope to have all that is required of me [including permits and an initial deposit of roughly $3,000] submitted to the City this week.
What sort of permitting are you applying for?
KB: There are a couple of different things I’m going for. A “Sidewalk Café Permit” will simply allow customers to occupy the patio. I’m also seeking a “Neighborhood Use Permit”, which would allow customers to smoke on the patio, just as they’ve been doing for years. My ultimate goal is to expand into the space behind the building, creating a larger patio area with a second bar, allowing smokers and dogs. If I can accomplish that, then I will prohibit smoking on the front-patio to appease those who don’t like to walk past smokers or allow smoke to waft into the main bar.
What about this do you deem excessive or hurtful to your business?
KB: When you set out to build or construct anything, it is absolutely your responsibility to ensure you are up-to-code and following all rules. This patio was built at least five-to-seven years before I occupied the space. It was used by two businesses prior to Small Bar. Nobody goes into a home or business purchase, looks around and says, “Hey, I should call a City official to see if I owe them some money.” That’s crazy. Further, when you open a business, an inspector already has to come out to walk the site and make sure you are OK to open. So, with Small Bar and the previous business, at least two different inspectors could have looked at the site then and said, “Hey, there’s no permit on file for this patio.” We would have made sure we were in code from the get-go. Now, we’ve built this business over the years where regulars who live in the neighborhood visit my patio every day. It might sound silly to say they’re suffering because their local bar lost their patio, but they are. And I employ 30 people. With the patio down, I lose business. If I lose business that means the bar is slower and I need to cut shifts early, including kitchen hours. Therefore, staff across-the-board is losing money. We all have rent, some have children and families to support, and it’s a financial burden to us all. This is a huge hit to us all.
You’ve been outspoken about this development on social media. What exactly are you looking for from the City?
KB: All I’m asking for from the City is to be reasonable with our situation. They weren’t called out to Small Bar because someone fell of the patio or was injured due to poor construction or installation. They came out because some anonymous person who is hiding behind their telephone and computer can’t come meet with me like an adult and give me the chance to address their concerns. I should be allowed to operate just as I have for the past seven years, and go through all the paperwork and plan drawings, and pay fees to get in code. It should be noted that when I contacted the woman who is handling my case in Code Enforcement, who sent me the list of things I needed to correct, she flat-out refused to help me. I had questions about paperwork and what applied to my situation—some of the paperwork asks for names of contractors who performed the work and when it was worked on…which I have zero way of knowing—and her response was that it was not her job to understand it, just to ensure I turned it all in and adhered to their demands. She literally directed me to the website I had just told her I read and needed help with. It’s quite clear that the City does not care about me or my staff. They just want money. I pay my taxes. The entire situation is so disheartening.
On a more positive note, how has it been to have so much unsolicited support from the public?
KB: The support received has been absolutely overwhelming. While I have a Small Bar’s manager, Louis Mello, for operations support, I go home to an empty house and struggle alone with the challenges that a small-business owner faces every day. This entire situation has had me stressed out and full of anxiety. Reading the supportive comments on the Change.org petition, GoFundMe and Facebook pages from friends, people I’ve never even met, local business competitors, people from all over the world who have visited my little business, has brought me to tears multiple times. A thank-you doesn’t seem like enough.