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By Jean Lotus
Patrick O'Brien was excited about his new sandwich shop, Scratch Kitchen at 7445 Madison St. in Forest Park. He invested $100,000, adding all-new kitchen fixtures, installed six flat-screen TVs and a bar to improve what had been a late-night taco stand into a high-concept gourmet "sandwich and craft canned beer bodega," which was to open next week.
That was until the village council refused to grant his liquor license in a technical maneuver that meant the license application never even came to a vote.
The proposed ordinance on the village agenda Monday night would have amended the number of liquor licenses in the new "Class A" category (instituted in April) to include Scratch Kitchen.
Commissioner Chris Harris proposed the change, but commissioners Hoskins, Hosty and Mannix declined to second it.
After the meeting O'Brien was shocked.
"I can't believe it, I can't believe it," he said. "I have a clause in my lease that says if I can't get license approval I can walk away."
"I can take my concept elsewhere," he added.
O'Brien said he took out a $100,000 Small Business Association loan and put up $25,000 of his own money to open the restaurant. The job was a gut remodel, since everything had been picked clean from the previous restaurant, even the large stove hood.
The former eatery, Deko's, closed abruptly last December after the DEA arrested the owner, Forest Parker Mario Carrera, 47, and charged him with selling cocaine out of the restaurant.
O'Brien and his partner, John Downs, of Brookfield, who owns Bartini Bar and Grill in North Riverside, were in close contact with Mayor Calderone, who is also the Forest Park liquor commissioner, O'Brien said.
"I wouldn't have proceeded if I didn't have the utmost confidence in this town and in my location. I grew up [in River Forest]."
O'Brien has a 3-year-old child and wife, "who were counting on this business," he said. "I'm so beyond confused right now."
He said he was completely surprised by the turn of events.
"It has nothing to do with me. Obviously this will be a sleepless night. Our restaurant is ready to be inhabited. The first meeting with staff is [Tuesday] night at six."
O'Brien said by the time the next village council meeting is held on Jan. 14, his restaurant would be out of business without a liquor license.
"Our bank loan is due, our rent is due. We're almost out of money, so we were hoping to open."
The village currently has 14 "Class A" liquor licenses. The classification was developed last April to cover liquor-serving establishments that are more food- than liquor-oriented. The restaurants must earn more than 50 percent of their income from food, according to the classification. Class A restaurants are allowed to have a stand-alone bar, as opposed to a service bar.
When the ordinance was introduced, Calderone said it was to prevent restaurants from "morphing into full-scale bars."
"I'm not a bar, I don't want to be a bar," O'Brien insisted. "No one on Madison Street had the concept I was going to provide," said O'Brien, whose menu plans included creating even pickles and catsup from scratch.
Commissioner Hosty did return requests for comment by press time.
Mannix said he had "not heard anything good, bad or indifferent about the owner," of Scratch Kitchen. He said he waited for commissioner Hoskins to second the motion because, "the commissioner of public health and safety needs to be the one who is going out there and making sure the job is done."
When Hoskins didn't second the motion, Mannix said he thought it was "a red flag right there." Hoskins retorted that Mannix was "disingenuous" and had never previously looked to him for a vote recommendation.
"I fought pretty hard for [the Slainte beer garden, shot down by a 3 -2 vote]. I had already decided I was going to stay out of this one," Hoskins said. "Our council should be driven more by rules and conventions as opposed to personalities," he added.
The following restaurants were reclassified as Class A in April: Coral Sushi (now Yi Lin), Molly Malone's, Shanahan's, Skrine Chops, Fiorenza, Goldyburgers, Kevil's, Jimmy's Place, Francesca Fiore, Golden Steer, The Wine Bar (now Tapas 7232), M. Hermann's (now the Old School Bar and Grill), caffe DeLuca and Fat Duck.
Since the classification, two restaurants have changed hands: Old School and Yi Lin. However, both locations previously had liquor licenses. That was not the case for Deko's, the taco stand formerly located at that site.
In a memo to the council last April, Mayor Calderone wrote that he personally had "amended the number of liquor licenses" in the Class A category to 14 to include two new restaurants.
When asked about the memo, he said, "perhaps the better word would have been 'recommended.'"
Calderone said in that case the number of Class A licenses was not required to be voted on by the council because it was a new category that could be changed by the liquor commissioner.
But he said once a classification is determined, the council must vote to change the number of licenses within it.
"Any addition to the number of licenses in a class is required to be voted on by the village council."
When asked why the council would decline a liquor license to a new business that had invested on Madison Street, he said, "You can't blame me for that. I put it on the agenda. I'm a little dumbfounded myself," said Calderone. "If it had been seconded and discussed I absolutely would have voted yes."
Two other restaurants with full bars opened in Forest Park without requiring a vote to amend the number of a category of licenses. Amelia's, which opened in February, primarily serves food, and has a physical bar (as opposed to a service bar) but was classified as a Class A1 license. Piggyback Tavern, which opened last month, also has a physical bar and is a Class A, confirmed Calderon. That seems to bring the number of restaurants qualifying for the Class A to 15, while only 14 licenses are approved.
"I want Tony to call and tell me what happened," O'Brien said. "I'm so freaked out that this won't go down easy. I'm sickened by it and somebody better explain it to me."
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