Our View: Sweet Pea decision was correct

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Editorial Board, August through December 2010

  • Scott Stanford, general manager
  • Brent Boyer, editor
  • Blythe Terrell, city editor
  • Tom Ross, reporter
  • Rich Lowe, community representative
  • Sue Birch, community representative

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The Routt County Board of Commiss­ioners, acting as the local Board of Health, made a difficult but justifiable decision last week when it revoked the business license of Sweet Pea Market and Cafe for at least 60 days.

Sweet Pea’s license revocation is noteworthy because of the enormous popularity of the Yampa Street eatery and market, as well as the fact that it’s the first such restaurant license revocation in at least the past three decades, according to longtime Routt County Department of Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf.

The county’s decision wasn’t made lightly or hastily.

Sweet Pea’s issues with complying with state health regulations date to spring, when it was discovered that the restaurant had far more seating than was allowable given its single bathroom facility. Sweet Pea first was notified about the bathroom regulation in a May 20 letter from the Department of Environmental Health. Subsequent inspections June 25, July 6, July 16, July 26, Aug. 5, Aug. 16 and Aug. 26 detailed the restaurant’s lack of a second bathroom facility and a mop sink. Additional letters from the Department of Health warned of potential civil penalties of as much as $1,000 for failure to comply within a given timeframe. And at least two of those letters — one issued Aug. 20 and one issued Aug. 30 — reminded owners Jonathon Hieb and Katherine Zambrana that the assessment of a third civil penalty would result in a state-mandated Board of Health hearing to consider a suspension or revocation of Sweet Pea’s business license.

It should therefore have come as no surprise to Hieb and Zambrana that their business could be shut down for an extended period of time. They made a conscious business decision to operate through the busy summer season with an out-of-compliance restaurant and pay the fines.

What compounded Sweet Pea’s situation, and helped lead to the commissioners’ decision to revoke the license for 60 days, was the discovery Sept. 2 of two previously undisclosed walk-in refrigeration units. The storage units violated a number of health codes, including food stored under an unshielded sewer line, food stored on the basement floor and unprotected from contamination, improperly installed drain lines, and refrigerator and freezer walls constructed of unfinished wood. A follow-up Sept. 13 inspection revealed many of the same issues that had gone uncorrected from the Sept. 2 inspection and notice.

Sweet Pea also failed to get adequate building permits for the basement walk-in coolers and was in violation of building codes pertaining to proper exits for occupancy levels.

Sweet Pea has enjoyed tremendous success at its Yampa Street location, and for understandable reasons. Its riverfront setting, focus on organic foods and farmers-market vibe make it a desirable summertime stop for residents and visitors. That success led to growth and created a dozen or so jobs for locals. Small-business success stories, particularly in this economic climate, can be hard to come by.

But the economy and the potential loss of those jobs is not sufficient reason to allow a business that violated numerous state and local health and building codes during a period of several months to continue to operate. Hieb and Zambrana had ample opportunity to address the violations as they were brought to their attention. Better yet, Hieb and Zambrana should have followed building and health codes from the beginning.

Worse, Sweet Pea’s owners potentially jeopardized the health of the countless patrons who shopped or dined at their market and restaurant in spring and summer.

We’re not so naïve as to think Sweet Pea is the only restaurant that receives unsatisfactory marks from semi-regular health inspections. But we are alarmed and disappointed that Sweet Pea’s owners allowed the noncompliance to continue for such an extended period of time. We hope Hieb and Zambrana spend the next two months, as they have indicated they will, making the necessary improvements to allow Sweet Pea to be a successful and compliant business well into the future.

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