Café Culture catches a break

Council votes to find a way to allow alcohol sales

It’s not often that a grandmother and a retired corporate CEO step forward to ask Chico City Council members to allow a dance hall to sell beer and wine, but that was the case Tuesday night (April 19), when the panel considered Café Culture’s appeal of a city zoning administrator’s thumbs-down on an alcohol-sales application.

In fact, the 19 people who spoke in support of the café comprised such a varied group, were so clearly not college-student types, and were so appreciative of the café’s diverse multicultural offerings and community-mindedness, they convinced some council members who’d been inclined to deny the appeal to change their minds.

Councilman Bob Evans, for example. After listening to public testimony, he said, “I admit I came in here with preconceived ideas. … But I’ve never seen such one-sided, articulate support for owners as I’ve heard tonight. My opinion is different now than it was before.”

The grandmother was Judy Casamajor, who said she’d brought her 3-year-old grandson to the café to listen to music. The retired CEO was Jim Fletcher, the father of café co-owner Greg Fletcher, who said he’d formerly headed up the 500-store Round Table Pizza chain. “There are practical reasons why even family restaurants serve beer and wine,” he said. “Café Culture needs to remain viable.”

From the perspective of café owners Greg Fletcher and Praveen Ram, who are married, that was the crux of the issue. Their original mission had been to offer dance and music classes as well as a café and small import store, but it wasn’t economically viable. So, to increase revenues, they asked the city to OK amplified-music concerts four times a month; then they sought to expand that to eight times a month. The zoning administrator OK’d both, but not a request to allow alcohol sales as well.

As several speakers pointed out, with its concerts the café gained a reputation as a site where people could hear a wide variety of music from around the world, from Malian Afro-beat and Mexican salsa to reggae. But when even the concerts didn’t bring in enough money, the owners began renting it out for after-hours private parties.

That’s when the trouble began. As Chico police Chief Mike Maloney told the council, officers had responded to several calls, including a stabbing and a shooting, outside the café during late-night hours. He said allowing alcohol sales at the café would add an “incremental burden” to his already overburdened force.

But the many fans of the café, all of them solid citizens, were insistent that those events had ended, and that what the café’s owners now wanted was just to be able to sell beer and wine to mature customers for whom drinking was incidental to their entertainment, not central to it. They noted that café activities had never drawn police attention.

Two people spoke against allowing the sales. One was Ken Fleming, a council regular who has long maintained that “Chico has a drinking problem” and opposed granting liquor licenses. The other was Don Walker, the brother of Vice Mayor Jim Walker (who recused himself on the issue, saying he couldn’t be objective). He and his parents own two apartment complexes in the area. He worried that Café Culture’s alcohol license could be passed on to an operator who was less respectful of the neighbors than Fletcher and Ram are.

Walker’s testimony was offset by that of Jackie Headley, who owns the Café Culture building (the former Gold’s Gym) as well as a nearby apartment complex and the Woof & Poof factory down the street. Café Culture, she said, offers “wholesome activities for people of all ages.”

Following the public hearing, it soon became clear that a majority of the council members wanted to find a way to get around the zoning and licensing restrictions so the café could stay in business. But how to do that? As Councilman Scott Gruendl put it, “We really are stretching the land-use designation at this site.”

Ultimately the council voted, 4-2, with Mayor Ann Schwab and Councilman Mark Sorensen dissenting, to support the appeal but also send the matter back to staff for refinement while the café’s owners simultaneously work with state Alcoholic Beverage Control to obtain the appropriate license.

The matter will come back to the council at a later date. As Councilwoman Mary Flynn told the café’s owners, “This is far from over.” To them, of course, knowing it wasn’t over was good news.