L to E: New intended use of train station doesn’t work under County Health Code
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
by Erin and Peter Chase
One question that has not received much attention in connection with the 15-year Chappaqua Train Station lease issued to Love at 10514, is: exactly what food products may be sold there, assuming the site is kept essentially “as is”—the current plan—without running afoul of the Westchester County Health Code? The answer: not much, actually.
Some might believe that so long as nothing is “cooked” in an oven or on a stovetop at the train station, there are no Code concerns. However, based on our long experience in the restaurant industry and what we know about the site itself, that simply is not the case. Pursuant to the Health Code, whenever you have an area where food is being prepared—which includes actions such as compiling or finishing off dishes, blending drinks and even transferring food from a bulk container to a customer-sized one for consumption on premises or off—the surfaces must be non-porous and easy to clean.
This means all surfaces (counters, walls and floors) must be covered with materials such as tile and stainless steel. In its present state, Café La Track, where the “kitchen” is and will remain, is virtually all dark wood, which absorbs smells and grease, is hard to clean and is a fire hazard. We have been told by the Town employee in charge of the building that a tenant “cannot even make toast” in the site as it presently exists. Certainly, this statement reflects our understanding of the site’s current limitations under the Code (which, by the way, extend beyond just the surfaces to include possible issues with plumbing, utilities, equipment, etc.).
According to the Town Board, it selected Love at 10514 over our presentation and the only other one by Via Vanti Piccolo mainly because it will “do nothing” to the interior other than general refreshing, painting and floor buffing and thus constituted the best use of Town assets. This could be just fine with some in the community because it would preserve the interior of La Track although, despite what the Town has said, that area is not original let alone “historic.” It was basically stripped to the studs about a decade ago and much of the ticket area was renovated as well. (We have architectural plans reflecting this.)
Residents should be aware, however, that the main consequence of the “do nothing” approach is that it severely limits what types of food can be lawfully sold under the Health Code. Essentially, it would have to be almost entirely foods cooked and pre-packaged in an off-site Health Code compliant site and sold on-site in the same packaging.
As we have made clear, we strongly believe the community wants and deserves so much more than just “take-out”. Our submission as well as that of Via Vanti Piccolo, though different in the specific details, both offered bar/wine bar/small plate concepts in the evening hours, precisely because we felt that concept would best suit the needs of residents. During the day, our respective concepts have somewhat different takes: our presentation offered a food hall with the ability to eat-in or take-out; the other offered continuous small plate table service with a variety of community based activities. All of us realized, though, that the current site would not pass inspection for even just the bar/wine bar/small plate concept without significant renovations to the kitchen area in La Track. To that end, we each were ready to commit significant resources to bring the site fully up to Code, which is something Love at 10514 is not obligated to do and has not agreed to pay for.
Putting aside our own views about what should go into the station, once the Board issued the lease to Love at 10514, it seemed implausible—though it might have been possible—that what was going to be sold would be restricted to true “take-out.” Under the lease, while Love at 10514 has the option of offering only prepackaged “take-out” foods, it also has the option of offering foods that would necessarily involve on-site preparation to some extent. If any such “preparation” happens, Code-compliance issues are likely to arise. This can include foods needing a heat source to be finished-off (e.g., paninis and waffles which are made in presses), foods requiring compilation or customization (e.g., salads freshly compiled from a garde-manger or “salad station”), foods requiring repackaging (e.g., soups and stews ladled from a bulk container in a large steam table into customer-sized containers) and drinks requiring blending or other processing (e.g., smoothies and cleanses which customarily are made fresh, to order).
In other words, even though the food and drinks offered by Love at 10514 might be authorized under the lease, if they involve any level of on-site preparation, they are likely to give rise to material Code issues that cannot be addressed without significantly renovating the site. The current lease does not address renovations of that nature—what they are, who will pay for them, and when they will happen. To the contrary, the lease expressly provides the interior is to remain almost entirely intact and precludes the tenant from making interior changes except for minor alterations.
It is not surprising to us that even this so-called “grab and go” concept described by Love at 10514 in its written RFP and reflected in the lease, would give rise to Code-issues. Yet, what we did not know until just recently is that Love at 10514 actually is going to be a “Wine Bar” and small plate “Bistro”. That is how the venue is being advertised by Love at 10514, both on-line (including with photographs of a mock up of its sign and of freshly prepared dishes it says it will offer) and at the Chappaqua Farmers Market, including a particularly heavy promotion this weekend.
As further confirmation of its intentions, Love at 10514 has applied for a wine and beer license. This is a use not authorized under the lease, not shown in the floor plan attached to the lease, and not included by Love at 10514 in its written RFP or its in-person presentation to the Board. At that time, Leslie Lampert, the owner, specifically rejected a wine bar concept, stating it “really wasn’t my vision for what the Chappaqua station should look like or feel like” as she thought the venue should cater to commuters, families and young people, and close down early, around 8pm.
However, it is essentially our concept, the same concept in fact that we proposed and which the Board expressly rejected—barely one month ago—as not being the best use of Town assets. Remember, the Board’s primary explanation for its selection of Love at 10514 was that its “grab and go” concept (which would be self-service as the lease precludes wait service) not only better suited the community but also better suited the site because the interior supposedly could be left almost entirely unchanged.
This explanation made absolutely no sense to us at the time, as we have explained elsewhere, but with the selected tenant now embracing the very same concept, the fallacy of the Board’s primary justification for eliminating our proposal (as well as Via Vanti Piccolo’s) is now indisputable. Also, this concept change again shines a spotlight on how flawed the RFP was, because among other things, it did not clearly state an objective for the train station occupancy.
We are not saying that what has transpired is a violation of the lease, which is on hold given our filing of the petition for a permissive referendum. What we are saying is that this development raises a host of questions about what exactly is going on. Did the Board mean what it said about what best suited the community or did it not? How can the process have been fair if the main basis for rejecting the two other presentations went out the window in a matter of weeks? Why did the concept change to include a wine bar and small plate offering? Was it because, the Town and Love at 10514 heard from the community they were disappointed in just a “grab and go” concept and not having a new place to gather in the evening for a drink and some food? How can this concept be going forward so aggressively when, as far as the public knows, it has not even been discussed let alone approved by the full Town Board? Have individual Board members given their tacit approval for this new concept even though it should be a matter determined by the entire Board? Is the idea, make it a fait accompli and then the Board will feel pressure to approve it?
Perhaps most importantly, has anyone, at any point in this process, closely examined use of the train station as a restaurant in terms of the Health Code? The current lease only addresses Code-compliance in terms of the very minimal changes the tenant is allowed to make. It does not, however, address Code-compliance in terms of all permitted use under the lease (other than strict “take-out”) let alone the tenant’s actual intended use as a wine bar and bistro, including what those renovations are to be, who will pay for them and when they will happen. In fact, the tenant is expressly precluded from doing anything to the interior structure or plumbing, utilities, etc. except for those very minimal changes.
Ultimately, Code compliance is for the Westchester County Board of Health to decide and not the New Castle Town Board, but from a contract perspective, agreement on the details of Code compliance have to be a part of the deal structure. We estimated the costs for Code compliance alone to be substantial, which amounts we were willing to invest in the structure. That would mean those improvements would be owned by the Town, at no cost to taxpayers. We also, obviously, accounted for the work to happen in advance of the opening. Not to do so would run the risk of a sudden shut down once violations are cited, resulting in significant inconvenience to commuters and others.
With all of the above in mind, there is a reasonable basis for concluding that the existing lease has little practical viability:
• What was presented, negotiated and agreed upon (self-service “grab and go”) is materially different from how the selected tenant now intends to actually use the site (wine bar/small plate bistro);
• The lease does not provide for on-site alcohol service or for related licensing. Whether the Board has even discussed this topic we do not know;
• The lease does not provide for anything other than minimal upgrades, leaving open the issue of the requisite Code compliance as explained above;
• In terms of getting permits and licenses, the tenant’s obligation under the lease are tied to a floor plan and purpose that no longer applies; and
• Numerous other provisions in the lease would have to be reconsidered in the context of the new intended use, such as wait service (presently not allowed), hours of operation (presently closing at 8:30 on weekdays, 9:30 on Saturdays and 6:30 on Sundays), and water (town has agreed to pay for all tenant’s cold water use which will certainly increase with the proposed new use).
When you consider these problems with the lease itself taken together with the highly irregular RFP process, the nonsensical nature of this entire matter is blaringly obvious. Right now, the Town’s interest—which really are our interests as taxpayers—are not being served by stubbornly persisting with a lease that fails to address looming Health Code issues, regardless of the use, but that for a host of other reasons simply does not fit the “new” reality of the tenant’s intended use.
With our filing of the petition for a permissive referendum, the Town has the opportunity, under the law, to rescind the lease and start the process anew. That is what should happen.
The RFP process was wrong.
The lease is wrong.
The only logical step is a rescission.