Frustrating times for West Bank's Hard Times Cafe

There are a few handwritten notes taped to the front window of Hard Times Cafe, varying in appearance and author, but all addressing one issue: Hard Times Cafe isn't open for business right now. When the cafe closed for renovations at the end of July...
By
  • Ahnalese Rushmann
October 10, 2007

There are a few handwritten notes taped to the front window of Hard Times Cafe, varying in appearance and author, but all addressing one issue: Hard Times Cafe isn't open for business right now.

When the cafe closed for renovations at the end of July, its owners guessed they'd be back in business in time for fall semester.

But it's been more than two months since Hard Times shut its doors, and University students and community members have been wondering not only when the West Bank eatery will reopen, but what caused the delay in the first place.

One of the signs on the door, from the Hard Times staff, mentions they are going through "bureaucratic red tape."

Despite rumors swirling around the community about the cafe's closing, the owners and city officials agreed miscommunication about permits was the main problem.

Graham Baldwin and Jason Buckendorf, two owners of
the collectively run business, said they weren't fully informed of the permit application process to update the restaurant's ventilation system and dishwasher.

"Partially, it's our fault because we didn't research the process," Baldwin said. "(The city) is just doing what they're supposed to."

He said owners were unaware the city had to initially approve a food plan review, which allows the cafe to continue applying for additional building permits and finish ongoing remodeling.

Buckendorf said he and the other owners didn't find out about that requirement until the end of August and therefore, the food plan review wasn't approved until last Friday.

He said minor setbacks involving parts for the new ventilation system would have only set back reopening until a week or so into September.

Matt Laible, city of Minneapolis spokesman, said city action didn't force the cafe to close.

"Hard Times is closed of their own accord," he said. "The city didn't shut them down."

Curt Fernandez, the city manager of environmental health, which oversees food inspections, said Hard Times owners were told of the requirements, including the food plan review, in a meeting with city officials last March.

Laible also said the health department is working with Hard Times owners to get the business open again.

Susannah Dodge, property manager of Hard Times, said she was frustrated by the food plan review process.

"They are requiring us to apply through the city of Minneapolis as if we are opening up a brand-new kitchen," she said. "When somebody changes something in a kitchen, you have to go through the entire development process all over again."

Dodge credited Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon with bridging the communication gap between the cafe and the city.

"Everyone's concerned about the delays," Gordon said. "I am trying to help as much as I can that they can get through the city process."

Dodge said the hiatus is proving itself a financial burden.

"(The employees) are completely broke from this process," she said.

Buckendorf said the closing has been especially tough for owner Brian Monroe.

Monroe was diagnosed with cancer last summer and it's hard to compensate medical bills with a lack of income, Buckendorf said.

He said Hard Times will hold a benefit show at Bedlam Theatre in November to help with Monroe's medical costs.

Troy Pieper, another Hard Times owner, said he appreciates the loan of an undisclosed amount Hard Times received from its "big sister," Seward Community Cafe.

"(They're) one of the reasons we're going to be able to open," he said.

Carrie Anne Johnson, an East Phillips resident and mother of a 3-month-old son, said she misses the cafe's vegan dishes made with locally produced ingredients.

"When I'm nursing a child, I need to eat," Johnson said, adding that her food allergies make dining at other restaurants difficult at times.

She said she thinks the city is specifically targeting Hard Times by trying to keep them closed.

Baldwin said although the process has frustrated employees, he realizes the city has a responsibility to regulate restaurant operations.

"They're not inventing specific processes against us," he said.

Baldwin said he's heard conspiracy theory-type rumors with little truth to them.

"The fact that we're closed forever is not true," he said. "People make stuff up."

Dodge said she estimated the cafe would be up and running in a couple weeks.

Owners said they hope a reopening will take place before the cafe's 15th anniversary Nov. 17. They said they weren't worried about a lack of business once they reopen, but hoped customers would be patient.

Scott Westenberger, a history junior, said he started going to Hard Times when he lived in Middlebrook Hall last semester. He said he worked nights, so Hard Times' 22-hour operation worked great with his schedule.

Westenberger said he visited the cafe a few times to check if it was reopened.

"It seems to me like it's the worst time that they could possibly do this," he said.

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