Attorney: Order to close café off base

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Tennessee Department of Health has ordered the Sisters Three Corner Café on Lewisburg's public square to close because its second restroom is upstairs, but the restaurant's lawyer says there's an exemption for historic buildings such as the restaurant in what used to be the sheriff's office and county jail.

"Sisters Three failed to correct the ... critical item: ... toilet and hand washing facilities," Pamela C. Wilson, Columbia field office manager, wrote to Kimberly Wing, proprietor of the restaurant at 203 First Ave. North, next to the Ladies Restroom. Wilson emphasized the issue was the number of convenient and accessible restrooms.

Wilson gave Wing 10 days to appeal.

"Of course we're going to defend the case," Lewisburg-based attorney David McKenzie said Thursday morning. "We've filed an appeal to the suspension notice and are awaiting a trial date in front of an administrative law judge in Nashville.

"This is based on the historical exemption," McKenzie said of what he will contend during the administrative hearing, "and the fact that the restaurant was previously approved and allowed to operate last spring."

Wing's restaurant is the successor establishment to the Corner Café operated by Michael Farrar who continues to run his bail bonding business in the southeast corner of the old sheriff's office. A second restroom was required after Wing moved her Sisters Three restaurant from the clubhouse at Saddle Creek Golf Club on the Fayetteville Highway.

"This is not a health violation per se," McKenzie said, deflecting "sanitation" concerns at Sisters Three. "It's a matter of convenience for those who might need a restroom when the one on the ground floor is occupied."

A follow-up inspection of Wing's location on the square was conducted on Sept. 24 by a health inspector, Wilson said. The Health Department's director of general environmental health told Wing in an Oct. 8 letter that the "cessation of operation" was upheld.

Accordingly, Wilson issued a suspension notice to Wing, saying Sisters Three had to close for at least 24 hours and shall not reopen until the violations were corrected.

Wing and McKenzie note that Farrar was able to open the Corner Café with one restroom that could be used by both sexes, but one at a time.

Hugh Atkins, director of the Division of General Environmental Health, said in an Oct. 4 letter to Wing that Farrar was advised of the discrepancy on Dec. 30.

Wing's second restroom is accessible to able-bodied men who would walk out of the restaurant and go up stairs on the outside of the building.

While Farrar opened the Corner Café without any mention that a second bathroom was needed, regardless of whether it was on the ground floor or upstairs, Atkins noted Farrar closed his restaurant.

While health inspector Carl Hammons "mistakenly allowed" Farrar to open his restaurant, Atkins noted that Wilson allowed it to remain open and address the issue if he extensively remodeled the establishment during his ownership.

"It is unfortunate that Mr. Hammons allowed the Corner Café to open without the proper restroom facilities," Atkins said, "but once the establishment closed, the number of restrooms ... was no longer an issue...

"Any allowances granted to the Corner Cafe do not transfer to future occupants of the facility," Atkins said.

When asked about allegations raised by the property owner, bail bondsman Michael Farrar, McKenzie said,

"We are currently investigating the conduct of a health inspector."

While Wing's attorney declined to get more specific, Farrar has complained of repeated inspections after having been authorized to open the new business at 1st Avenue and Church Street. Wing said recurring inspections have prompted talk among prospective customers and therefore she has suffered a loss of business.

McKenzie noted that Marshall County's unemployment rate remains among the highest in the state and closure of the restaurant will make that worse.