Tastease Doughnut Shop To Close; Owners Cite Battle With City of Hartford
By VANESSA DE LA TORRE and JENNA CARLESSO
May 01, 2012
HARTFORD — — Tastease, the Parkville shop whose mini-doughnut gems have made fans of politicians, blue-collar workers, children and suburban moms alike, is closing June 30.
That's when its city permit expires.
And no way, said Tony Mendes, 67, a gregarious Hartford native who owns Tastease with his wife, Susan, will he reapply.
"I'm not spending another dime with the city," Mendes said Tuesday morning. "I wanted to be here for the millionth doughnut, but I don't think it's going to happen."
Since opening in 2004, the New Park Avenue business has produced at least 937,794 doughnuts, colorfully-decorated with blueberry, caramel, maple, cherry, vanilla or chocolate frosting, the toppings ranging from classic sprinkles to coconut flakes.
A signed portrait of former Gov.M. Jodi Rell, whose office would order the treats for the holiday open house at the governor's mansion, hangs on one wall. Two congratulatory citations from the city of Hartford are also framed and proudly displayed, both signed by formerMayorEddie A. Perez.
"Good neighbors like you are good business!" one read.
But in recent years, Mendes feels the city has nickle-and-dimed him and other small business owners over taxes and newly enforced regulations.
The Mendes' latest, ongoing battle with the city is over two small indoor tables near the shop windows where customers have sipped coffee and waited for their party pack of doughnuts or steak and cheese. (Tastease makes breakfast and lunch sandwiches, too.)
A new city health inspector stopped by recently, eyed the tables and said that either they had to go, or a public restroom needed to be installed, Mendes said. Because of the seats at the tables, the 400-square-foot Tastease is considered a sit-down restaurant.
State law requires such eateries to have a restroom accessible to patrons. Tastease has a private restroom in an employee-only area near the doughnut-making machine.
Raul Pino, the city's acting director of health and human services, said customers would have to pass through a food preparation area to get to it, which is not allowed under the state health code.
So far, Tastease has had a good health inspection record, with scores that range from 90 to 99, most recently at 90, Pino said.
The table issue was noticed during the last inspection because the inspector usually assigned to the restaurant was out on medical leave, and another inspector went instead, Pino said. The department has opened an internal investigation into why the problem wasn't flagged sooner, he said.
Mendes asserts that the previous city health inspector was the one who suggested the tables to help the business.
Next door at New Park Pizza CT, co-owner Sener Sahin, 29, who moved from Long Island to open the New York-style pizza shop last June, said the same inspector also recommended that he install seating booths to replace a few tables and chairs. Sahin did, at a cost of $2,000, he said.
"I passed inspections twice with the booths," Sahin said Tuesday. Then "the new inspector came in: 'You have to take these out.'"
Sahin figures it would cost at least $10,000 to $15,000 to install a public restroom. Under various owners, the small space, across the street from Our Lady of Sorrows Church, has been home to a pizza shop for about six decades. Sahin noted that his menu advertises a 10 percent discount to school, church, fire and police department employees.
"I don't want to close the doors and go back to New York again," Sahin said.
When it comes to Tastease, Pino said the health department will give the owners a year to correct the issue, adding that he is looking into the option of allowing them to have high-top tables, but no chairs, to create a "waiting area" but not a sitting area.
"We're not planning to close the place. We're planning to negotiate," Pino said. "Maybe we could agree on high tables to wait or eat quickly. But if you have people sitting, the state requires you to have restrooms ...
"We are the middle man between the customers and the business owners and we have to satisfy both. It's a balancing act to fulfill our obligations without making the business community angry and without neglecting our responsibility to safeguard the health of the people in Hartford. It's not easy."
But Tony Mendes said he is done. Ready to retire.
"I can't fight anymore. You can't win... It's like they're pulling my teeth," he said. "But leave me alone, I've got full dentures now."
Someone recently offered to buy Tastease and allow Susan to continue working at the shop part-time, Mendes said. But less than a week before closing the sale, the buyer backed out after learning about the table problem. Mendes wanted to meet with Mayor Pedro Segarra, he said, but couldn't get closer than the city's constituent services department, which never responded to him.
David Panagore, Hartford's chief operating officer, said the mayor's office had not been notified of a request to meet with the Tastease owners. He said, however, that because the health and human services department was dealing with the issue, it would be unusual for the mayor to meet with the owners.
"Every time you turn around, it's costing you more money," Susan Mendes, 57, the polite woman behind the Tastease counter, said late Tuesday morning. "I just don't have it to give anymore."
A few minutes later, Rorie Rueckert of West Hartford walked in from the rain with her two young sons, Will and Sam, to order a half-dozen doughnuts. A reporter told her Tastease was closing.
"No! No, no, no! No," Rueckert said.
"Yeah," Tony Mendes replied. "June 30th. You've still got me for two months!"
"No! ... We've just discovered you. Oh, you're kidding me."
Lori Remington, also of West Hartford, then arrived with her 16-month-old son. Mendes told her the news.
"No you're not," Remington said, her words soon turning to a plea. "No, no. No. Why?"
Courant staff writer Matthew Kauffman contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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