Trouble on the menu Photo by: Joe Piasecki

Trouble on the menu

City threatens fines against struggling  restaurants for sidewalk advertising

By Joe Piasecki 06/11/2009

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While strolling Colorado Boulevard Monday afternoon, USC students Willie Kuo and Anna Holmes paused outside Bar Celona restaurantto check out the menu, posted under glass on a stand positioned outside the front door. Liz Jones, a friend of theirs visiting from Ohio, couldn’t wait to try the pork croquetas — small but savory fried pastries that straddle the line between delicacy and fast food — so the three of them decided to get a table.

They were shocked to learn that over the past two months, city code enforcement officers had warned Bar Celona owner Jack Huang and several other Old Pasadena restaurateurs to remove such signs or face up to hundreds of dollars in fines.

“They’re good for business and good for customers,” said Jones. So, Kuo added, “Why would the city want to stop that?”
As it turns out, most menu stands, sandwich boards and food display tables are illegal in Pasadena — both on the sidewalk and sometimes even on private property — and have been for years, said city spokeswoman Ann Erdman, speaking on behalf of the city’s Code Enforcement Division.

“Pasadena zoning code prohibits portable signs,” she said. “This is certainly not a new issue, and when our code compliance officers see property owners out of compliance with the sign ordinance and zoning code, there is a warning process first. Some cities just go out and cite, but that’s not the way we operate here in Pasadena.”

Though most citations are in fact only warnings at this point, Huang and other restaurant owners expressed confusion and disappointment over what they describe as a blitz of citations in May and June, something that’s threatening their bottom lines in the midst of a deep recession.

Both Bar Celona and Huang’s other restaurant, Villa SORRISO, have been noticed with warnings over the past six weeks, as have redwhite+bluezz on Raymond Avenue, Le Pain Quotidien, Tani Japanese Restaurant and Equator, the Weekly has learned.
Tani ignored a warning about a sidewalk menu display outside its front door and received a $200 ticket, said owner Jay Choi, who avoided another potential fine against the restaurant by removing a window banner that was also deemed out of compliance with city code.

“Why do this now? It’s a tough time for everybody, and to remove this advertisement would be very bad for business,” said Choi. “People are starving right now.”

Patronage in local restaurants has declined by around 30 percent since last year, estimated Blair Salisbury, a Pasadena restaurant owner and president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Restaurant Association. 

City officials were unable to immediately track the number of recent restaurant citations or compare that figure with statistics for previous months because those records are organized by the location, not the time, of each citation, said Erdman.

Erdman also could not confirm whether there really has been an increase of code enforcement activity in Old Pasadena, but if there is it may be attributed to changes in the deployment of code enforcement officers. About a year ago, said Erdman, the city dedicated one code enforcement officer strictly to patrolling commercial areas. Before that, officers “were spread pretty thin” over the whole city, she said.

“If a business is just hanging on and all they can afford is a sandwich board, so they get a $200 fine — that’s not cool,” said Equator owner Teddy Bedjakian. Equator sits across from one already shuttered restaurant, The Crepe Vine, and has received several code enforcement warnings, both for a sign in front of the restaurant on Mills Place and another on Colorado Boulevard meant to draw foot traffic into the alley.

City zoning code prohibits “portable, folding or similar signs” with few exceptions, and almost all other forms of advertisement on public sidewalks, trees and street furniture. Moveable signs are permitted in interior courtyards, but only if they cannot be seen from the street.
Choi recently contacted the Old Pasadena Management District.

“We’ll certainly be asking that some considerations be made for the restaurants and work with businesses and the city to find a resolution,” said group President Steve Mulheim.

“If one business puts a sandwich board out, how do we keep someone else from putting one out and before you know it it’s a sea of sandwich boards?” Mulheim continued. But, if a sign is out of pedestrians’ way and in a permitted outdoor dining area, “there shouldn’t be a problem, and at that point we’d certainly be asking for consideration. We’re cognizant of keeping space for the public safe, but if it’s just about the fact you can see a sign, then that’s a different issue.”

Le Pain Quotidien General Manager Edward Joshiakar was told recently that he must remove a menu display from Colorado Boulevard, but could apply for a banner permit.

“People who pass by have to walk into the restaurant and physically ask for a menu or look for one inside to make up their minds. A certain percentage of our flow has been lost from not being able to put up a menu sign,” he said. “They don’t mind me having a banner I pay [for], but a sign I made is not good enough?”

Several restaurant owners are expected to take their complaints to city officials on Wednesday, during a meeting with City Manager Michael Beck arranged by Huang and Pasadena Chamber of Commerce President Paul Little.

Little and Huang also recently teamed up to protest plans for sharp increases in restaurant inspection fees, changes that were approved last week on a more gradual timeline. Restaurants are now paying more for trash and sewer services, and on July 1 could face water rate hikes exceeding 10 percent of current costs.

“With one hand they make it harder for us to do business, and with the other they raise fees,”
said Huang.

At the moment, Villa SORRISO and redwhite+bluezz are in compliance with the ordinance, said Erdman.
Villa SORRISO was cleared after Huang not only moved a display table from the sidewalk to an entranceway, but later completely out of public view.

“These kinds of citations are unnecessary and unreasonable,” he said. “I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”

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