Running on empty
Café Culture owners close up shop to revision, regroup and re-energize
Greg Fletcher and Praveen Ram are still coping with disappointing news. On March 8, the husband-and-wife duo, who own Café Culture—a music, art and dance venue that’s located on the corner of West Fifth and Cedar streets—received word that their request to begin serving beer and wine at live-music events had been denied.
It was a devastating blow to the couple, who have spent more than two years working tirelessly to make their vision of a venue that opens Chico’s doors to the rest of the world a reality. The community-oriented establishment has been struggling financially without beer-and-wine revenues, especially during live-music events, and despite widespread support from locals, city planners and Chico police have kept their arms firmly crossed on the matter.
At the recent meeting, the city zoning administrator rejected the couple’s request to modify their use permit to oust a provision that precludes the business from serving alcohol during live-music events.
“I’ve never seen two sadder people in my life,” Dan Casamajor, a friend of the couple who runs the café’s weekly open-mic night, said recently.
It was so devastating, particularly because it wasn’t the first time the two had been told “no.”
Fletcher and Ram applied for their first use permit in 2008, shortly after they opened Café Culture’s doors, so they could host live-music events. One of that permit’s provisions was that the business could not serve alcohol during the events.
Fletcher, who had moved to Chico from Grass Valley to start the business, didn’t initially understand the impact that provision would have on keeping his business afloat financially.
“I didn’t realize how essential it was, or how crippling that might be,” he said while sitting at a table in his eclectic café on a recent evening. “We soon realized that we could put on a great show with great publicity, but no people would show up, or the ones who did would ask [about alcohol].”
In late 2009, the couple submitted a request to modify that permit, a process that required $1,800 just to discuss, Fletcher said. They were advised that the request likely was going to be rejected. They also found out that if the permit was modified, they’d be required to address fire concerns in the facility, including installing a sprinkler system that could cost them up to $60,000. For those reasons, they withdrew their request in January 2010.
“That sent us running,” Fletcher said. “As time went on, we realized—well, we hoped—there was another way.”
However, the couple felt the absence of beer and wine sales more intensely as time went on, and reapplied to modify the permit in February of this year, but their request was denied.
“I was ready to close up shop,” Fletcher said. That’s when Casamajor, a retired attorney, approached him and changed Fletcher’s mind, offering to help the couple on a pro-bono basis to sort through the legal and communication issues that have arisen.
Assistant City Planner Angela Spain wrote the report recommending the city’s zoning administrator reject the café’s request. She corresponded with Chico State, the Chico Police Department, fire officials, and neighbors and property owners surrounding the café.
She said her recommendation came down to the challenges posed by the café’s location, plain and simple. The café’s proximity to the train tracks, the high level of alcohol-related crime in the area, and the fact that the café shares its building with a Chico State art studio were just a few of the concerns expressed, Spain said.
Chico Police Sgt. Rob Merrifield confirmed the department discouraged the city from allowing beer and wine sales during the café’s live music events. He noted that the venue is located in the “Fifth Street Corridor,” an area that sees high traffic by students and alcohol-related crimes.
Merrifield noted several incidents that have occurred in the café’s parking lot, including the recent shooting of a Butte College student, which occurred after a private event at the venue. He also listed several events that occurred in March 2010, including a 20-person fight involving knives and bottles being thrown after an after-hours hip-hop concert.
Café Culture recently discontinued all after-hours private parties, which they began hosting after they found themselves backed into a financial corner. Fletcher insists the café has never had problems during regular business hours, and that all incidents have been linked to private parties, but Merrifield said Chico police do not differentiate between normal business hours and after-hours parties.
“The licensee [Fletcher], in our opinion, is responsible,” he said. “We can’t say whether they’re related to after-hours events. How those came to be is really not our concern.”
Drew Calandrella, vice president of student affairs at Chico State, expressed the university’s opposition to serving alcohol at the café in a letter, which cited concerns about adding yet another watering hole to the area (14 businesses sell alcohol within a three-block radius, Merrifield said), and concerns about parking issues with the attached art studio rented by Chico State.
Fletcher, Ram and Casamajor have until Friday (March 18) to submit a final appeal to the city. They hope to get a spot on an upcoming Chico City Council agenda, and have an opportunity to plead their case to the panel, which can override the zoning administrator’s decision.
On Tuesday (March 15), the couple applied for a beer and wine license with the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. They expect to be granted the license, but will still be unable to serve beer and wine during live-music events because of the provision in their use permit.
If the City Council overrides the planning department’s decision, the café will need to see major changes, which Fletcher has been looking to make for some time anyway. He and his army of supporters are brainstorming ways to avoid implementing sprinklers, such as partitioning the room into smaller spaces, or installing fire windows. There are also plans in the works to renovate the entire building, including moving the stage and turning the place into a “classier joint,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher and about 30 supporters gathered on the café’s main dance floor earlier this week to toss ideas around about how to keep the café open. Ideas ranged from implementing a membership program to creating a nonprofit that generates money.
The group and other supporters plan to appear before the council. Fletcher said he hopes city leaders will hear him out about his vision for the café—a place that celebrates different forms of music, dance and art, and exposes locals to worldly things they may not experience otherwise.
“I think many people have had a similar vision or hope for this town,” Fletcher said. “But I can’t make it on my own.”