According to health department officials and documents, the controversy surrounding the Tiki Bar at KC’s Rib Shack came from a routine inspection on June 6th, conducted by Mary Ellen Tufts, Environmental Health Specialist I. It was during this inspection that the now infamous Tiki Bar was noticed.
Tufts asserted that no plans for the Tiki Bar had been submitted for review and no permits had been issued for its construction. She did not note that it was a modification of a pre-existing structure. She cited KC’s for not having a hand washing station at the bar and for ice water dripping into a 5 gallon bucket from a stainless steel ice bin.
The next day, June 7th, she restricted the bar’s activity to serving canned or bottled beverages and said mixed drinks could only be made at the bar inside the restaurant until until the sink and ice bin drainage violations were corrected. In response to her order that “plumbing fixtures shall be installed properly” and ice “shall drain into a plumbing system,” Rib Shack owner Kevin Cornish inquired about the use of a portable sink to address the hand washing issue and a “cambro” to address ice melt.
NOTE: Prior to modifying the preexisting gazebo to make the Tiki Bar, Cornish used a portable bar to make mixed drinks on the patio. The portable bar does not have a hand washing station and drains ice melt into a bucket. Functionally, there is no difference between how he used the Tiki Bar and how he used the portable bar.
Per Tufts’ request, on June 8th, Cornish emails her information regarding his proposed portable sink solution and questions the efficacy of using a cambro instead of his current arrangement. He asks for a quick review noting that neither solution is locally available.
On June 11th, Cornish re-sends the email regarding the portable sink as Tufts could no longer find the original. On the 12th, she wrote the “cambro looks good. I’ll get back to you on the hand wash station.” (The email chain of that exchange is here.) Cornish again sent a reply questioning how the cambro would be better, but didn’t hear back until June 17th, five days later on until this email saying that Plumbing Inspector Jack Vaillancourt would not allow ice to drip into a bucket. (The actual email sent by Vaillancourt to Tufts demonstrates just what inspectors think of themselves and the people they regulate. Note well that Tufts didn’t send her inquiry until June 14th, a full week after Cornish inquired about the option.)
From the 17th, Cornish would not hear from Tufts again until June 25th, the night she decided to re-inspect KC’s Rib Shack. From this point on, things went very wrong.
Before this inspection, Cornish says he’d abided by Tufts’ direction not to serve mixed drinks from the Tiki Bar. However, after waiting for more than two weeks for a reply to his suggestions, and experiencing an increase in patronage resulting from his Tiki Bar landing on the cover of the Hippo Press, he decided to risk the $50 fine he was told he’d receive if he didn’t follow her instructions.
He got a whole lot more than a $50 fine.
In this exclusive Girard at Large interview, Cornish says Tufts angrily called him after the inspection and demanded to know why he’d defied her. According to Cornish, she didn’t give him a chance to answer, saying something to the effect of “I don’t want to know,” before she hung up on him.
The next morning, June 26th, she fired off this email to various city staff, including Plumbing Inspector Jack Vaillancourt, Code Enforcement Inspector James Tierney, Fire Inspector Mitchell Cady, Deputy Health Officer Phil Alexakos, and her supervisor Aaron Krycki. In the email, she announced she’d “closed this operation down” and stated she “would appreciate your assistance with this matter.”
That same morning, Code Enforcement Inspector James Tierney made an unannounced visit to KC’s, took photos and left his business card with an employee on the way out the door. He spoke with no one on the premises about the situation.
At 8:45 the next morning, June 27th, he sent Tufts this email stating he would send a notice barring any use of the outside area or structure. She said “thank you” two minutes later.
Despite leaving several messages for Tierney, finally speaking with him on June 28th, Cornish would not know about the shutdown order, or the alleged serious nature of the violations, until Tierney’s letter arrived in the mail on July 3rd, eight days after the inspection.
It was only after sending email stating he would shut them down to Tufts that Tierney made inquires of other departments about the status of various permits, as can be seen in this email. (Note: There may have been other inquiries or communications but they’ve not been provided, despite two requests that any and all communications involving this matter be forwarded.)
That Tierney determined he would shut KC’s down within hours of his inspection, then take eight days to put it in the hands of the accused, is the “smoking gun” in this matter.
In a time line of events provided by Department of Planning and Community Development Director Leon LaFreniere, the reason given for taking 8 days from inspection to issuance of the Cease and Desist Order was that Tierney hadn’t completed his “research,” until July 2nd. LaFreniere’s timeline even notes that as of June 26th “Tierney has not researched the permit history on this property and is not familiar with what has been previously approved.”
Clearly, Tierney did make up his mind well prior to the completion of his “research.”
Did LaFreniere know Tierney sent this email to Tufts on June 27th? If he didn’t, why not? If he did, why did he write the timeline as presented? Either he did not know of Tierney’s decision or he’s just got caught covering up his inspector’s abuse of KC’s Rib Shack.
As this email from Cornish to Girard at Large notes, and as the timeline confirms, Tierney knowingly withheld his plan to shut the Tiki Bar down, intentionally depriving the business owner of the opportunity to know of the complaints and take the necessary corrective action to avoid a severe and unnecessary regulatory intervention.
Did he intend to shut KC’s entire outdoor patio down just prior to one if its busiest weekends, a holiday weekend that would prevent corrective action for days? The question has to be asked.
You will note other items are highlighted in LaFreniere’s timeline.
On June 17, LaFreniere writes about a hand sink installed without plumbing. Had Tierney asked Cornish during his sneak inspection, they would have known it was there as a “place holder” for a portable sink he was hoping to get approval for.
In an interview with Girard at Large, Lafreniere, who didn’t seem to think there was only a drain pipe missing, asked “would you want to drink from the soda cans under that sink?” He claimed “waste” was dripping onto the cans. Since I had visited the site and spoken with Cornish, I knew the truth and said “sure, why not? The sink can’t be used.” We had a troubling conversation about the definition of a sink.
This is the picture Tierney provided Girard at Large in response to our first Right to Know Request. This is the picture we obtained on our own. Did Tierney attempt to deceive department management by misrepresenting the sink?
One thing is clear, had Tierney spoken with someone during his “inspection,” he would have known why it was there, however incorrect it may have been. Those complaining that Cornish was taking no action to address Tufts’ concerns ought to take note of his persistent inquiries in pursuit of an answer to his suggestions and note that, even if wrong, he took steps to address Tufts’ concerns.
In the June 26th entries, LaFreniere makes note of the presence of Kevin Kincaid from the City Clerk’s Office. City Clerk Matthew Normand said Kincaid was only there because Tierney asked him to drive from a nearby inspection the two completed. Kincaid did not participate in any inspection, said Normand. “This is not a City Clerk licensing issue.”
There was no movement on this matter until Ward 10 Alderman Phil Greazzo convened a meeting with regulators from the City Clerk’s Office, Department of Planning and Community Development, and the Health Department on July 10th.
On July 12th, shortly before 5:oo PM, Cornish received this list of items that needed to be corrected and was granted permission to reopen the Tiki Bar and outdoor patio as long as he kept the fence gates around the patio opened, unplugged the extension cords that ran the Tiki Bar lights, didn’t serve mixed drinks from the Tiki Bar and limited occupancy to not more than 40 on the patio.
As Greazzo noted in this exclusive interview and in this email, the correction list doesn’t contain the twelve “urgent violations” cited by the Tierney in his Cease and Desist Order. “None of what the cease and desist order pertained to was legitimate, and (there was) no reason for an immediate shut down of a portion of a business in good standing, and that was the point from the beginning,” charged Greazzo.
On Monday, July 15th, Deputy Health Director Phil Alexakos signed off on a solution to the “bucket problem” that was created by the insistence of his inspector and the plumbing inspector that ice water must drain into the sanitary sewer. Rather than use the $600 stainless steel ice chest that allows “waste water” to drip away from the ice cubes it melts off of, ice will be stored in plastic “food grade containers,” aka “bus tubs.” (Bus tubs are the things that hold dirty dishes cleared from tables.) KC’s has agreed to fill a tub with ice, bring it to the Tiki Bar, and refill it as necessary. Yes, that means the ice will be sitting in what both departments say is “waste water” if it drains from the ice chest.
As of Friday the 19th, Alexakos had received and approved the restaurant’s plans, which included the use of the bus tubs. A portable hand wash sink, the item Mary Ellen Tufts never replied to him on, had been installed and the Health Department cleared the Tiki Bar to serve mixed drinks.
On Wednesday, July 17th, the day KC’s Rib Shack was burglarized at 2:00 AM, LaFreniere sent this letter identifying the areas of concern and suggesting ways to correct them. While he used the most constructive tone from his department to date, the fact remains that the onus is on Cornish to prove his actual seating capacities are less than what other city permitting agencies assigned so he can conduct business in the same manner he did before this whole mess erupted.
There is no doubt Cornish erred in not pulling permits to retrofit the existing gazebo and create the Tiki Bar. He admits that freely. Every department we’ve spoken to has said that had he “followed the process,” this would never had happened.
Many of the same violations he was cited for existed back in 2011 when he did go through the process to expand into the building’s second floor. Were their citations in this instance punishment not only for “business as usual” while waiting for the “Environmental Health Specialist I” to address his inquiries, but also for not bowing at their altar and pulling the required permits?
For his part, Cornish doesn’t understand how “the city” didn’t know that he was using his patio inasmuch as he had permits from the Clerk’s Office governing it’s usage for outdoor entertainment, the Fire Department setting its occupancy limits, and the State Liquor Commission allowing its use, among others. That said, if the city were 100% correct in its citations, it still had a fourteen year history of either getting it wrong or missing violations. Should not its inspectors have recognized that and been conciliatory, cooperative, even humble in pursuit of correction?
This is a classic case of bureaucratic vengeance. The instruction of an unresponsive health inspector is ignored. Offended, she involves fellow regulators with much greater power. Aggrieved on her behalf, they act ruthlessly, pile on the violations and execute an extreme penalty. When discovered, their organizations point fingers, moderate their stance, become somewhat more flexible. Solutions originally offered by the business owner, solutions once ignored, are accepted and others far less onerous are discovered to address issues, some of which that had nothing to do with the original concerns.
One cannot and should not overlook the fact that neither the timeline presented by Mary Ellen Tufts to Health Officer Tim Soucy nor the nor the timeline presented by Planning Director LaFreniere contained the information showing the inflammatory, spiteful actions and attitudes of their inspectors. It is clear these regulators thought they could go to great lengths without any upper level input or oversight.
What remains unclear is to what extent “the management” either sanctioned or disciplined the actions of their employees.
What is unknown is whether Mayor Ted Gatsas and the Board of Aldermen will take steps to hold these departments accountable for the damage they’ve done KC’s Rib Shack and the city’s reputation and what actions they will take to reform the permitting process and install policy safeguards to prevent these often occurring, but rarely publicly seen abuses.
Had KC’s Rib Shack not “gone public,” the abusers would have secretly claimed yet another victim and the opportunity to finally correct these ongoing abuses would not have realized.