Norah’s no longer open, for now
- Published: December 20, 2012
Richard Donnelly likes to enter through the living room door when he goes to Norah’s for Sunday brunch. He meets and greets everyone, then heads to the kitchen to say hi to the cooks before settling in at the buffet table with a hot cup of coffee. Donnelly didn’t use to eat Sunday brunch out until Norah Byrnes began opening her home on Walnut Street to friends and neighbors about a year and a half ago. But the promise of a great meal, a homey atmosphere and camaraderie of friends he both knows and hopes to meet keep bringing him back each weekend.
“Part of the reason I enjoy Norah’s is the camaraderie and ambiance — it feels like family and there’s more a sense of community there,” Donnelly said. “For me it’s been a wonderful year and a half — Norah cooking breakfast for her friends and friends she doesn’t know yet.”
But this past weekend was an exception. Starting Friday, Byrnes voluntarily stopped serving breakfast in her home. According to Village and Greene County officials, complaints about the activity in the home over the past year caused regulators to become aware that Byrnes may be operating outside zoning regulations. A group of officials met with Byrnes and her attorney Mark Babb on Thursday, Dec. 6, after which Byrnes decided to stop serving. Babb isn’t convinced that Byrnes was violating any laws.
“Norah hopes to open up where she is later, once we’re certain we’re in compliance with the law,” Babb said in an interview Monday.
Events leading to closure
The Greene County Combined Health District initiated last week’s meeting due to several complaints the agency received about food safety concerns at Norah’s over the past six months. According to Deb Leopold, food program manager for the health department, in April the agency received a complaint about a “breakfast that was operating without a license.” The agency visited the site and learned that the operator was not serving more than 115 meals per week, the threshold below which an operator has an exemption to the Ohio Uniform Food Code and is not required to be licensed. The health department asked Byrnes to post a sign outside her home indicating that she was operating an unlicensed food service.
The agency received two more complaints in November and December about “unsafe food handling practices,” before Leopold called last week’s meeting to try and work out a solution. According to Leopold, before attempting to enforce any food service regulations, the Village of Yellow Springs needed to approve the zoning use.
Village Manager Laura Curliss had no personal knowledge of Norah’s operation before attending the meeting, she said last week, though the Village did receive a complaint from the health department in April and another from a local resident in late November, according to Village Planner Ed Amrhein.
The activity at Norah’s, located at 128 S. Walnut Street in residential district C, does constitute a breach of Village zoning laws, Curliss said. District C requires homes to be both primarily residential and single use only. Byrnes lives in the home she serves breakfast in, which is more than one use, as well as a non-residential use, Curliss said. Also, if the activity at Norah’s can be defined as a home occupation, the code limits the number of client visits to less than eight per day. In addition, the conditionally permitted uses in District C do not include food service operations, except as they apply to bed and breakfasts.
“It’s still food service, even though she’s not charging,” Curliss said.
Operating outside the box
The fact that Byrnes does not charge a fee for her breakfasts and serves a small number of regular people tends to throw any official response to it off course. The activity can’t be classified as a business or a home occupation, nor can those she serves rightly be called clients or customers. That’s why the health department requests the signage for the unlicensed operation.
“It’s buyer beware, and the regulation is complaint-driven,” said Leopold, who in her 33 years at the health department has never seen a case like Norah’s. “We know she’s operating a breakfast out of her home. As to how that fits into all the regulations… since she claims the exemption of under 115 meals per week, the onus is on her to prove she’s running a safe and compliant operation.”
“What Norah does is unusual, but it’s not commercial,” Babb said. “Her open kitchen is a marvelous thing that challenges our basic attitudes and assumptions about what it means to make food for others.”
From the perspective of local resident and business owner Kurt Miyazaki, “Norah’s is a great thing that shows the Yellow Springs spirit that one can do things in a different way, and it’s one of those things that makes Yellow Springs kind of a special place,” he said. “From a community standpoint, it would be a real loss if she couldn’t continue.”
Local business owner Molly Lunde also believes that Norah’s fills a unique need in the village. It’s casual enough that if she’s in a hurry she can just breeze through without standing in line to either order food or pay for it, and it’s also friendly enough that she can bring her children and talk to friends knowing they can grab something off the buffet and be satisfied immediately.
“It’s a wonderful atmosphere of ease with this bounty of amazing food options, and the way it’s laid out with shared tables makes it feel more communal than at a restaurant,” she said.
And money is never talked about, Lunde said. There is neither an expectation of payment nor a logical or obvious place to leave a donation. (A pitcher into which people put cash sits on a kitchen table.)
“I’ve never had a conversation about money, I’ve even left the place without paying — it’s not a central theme of the experience,” she said.
According to Lunde, that kind of experience feels familiar to her as a native of Yellow Springs.
“The legacy in Yellow Springs is to be unconventional,” she said, and in fact the village had an informal neighborhood food service establishment called Gabby’s that operated on Stafford Street for a number of years in the 1970s.
“Norah’s reminds me of the stories I’ve heard about Gabby’s, which I know was a special place in people’s minds,” Lunde said.
Who might be affected
While villagers like going to Norah’s, several direct neighbors and local businesses also expressed support for such an opportunity for the village. Many of the people who go to Norah’s also frequent Tom’s Market, according to owner Tom Gray, including Tom and his wife Evelyn.
“Her customers are my customers as well, so it’s no problem,” he said this week. “Actually we go over and get breakfast there occasionally, too.”
And at least one Walnut Street neighbor said that while she doesn’t frequent Norah’s, the activity in the area doesn’t bother her at all. Another neighbor helps Byrnes prepare the breakfasts.
According to Miyazaki, the Emporium is probably the business that would be most affected by Norah’s. Byrnes is a former employee of the Emporium, and she initiated the breakfast menu at the business. When she left two years ago, the Emporium continued to offer breakfast foods, though the demand for Emporium breakfasts has decreased since Norah started cooking at her house.
But the loss is relatively small, according to Miyazaki, who relies more heavily on the sale of other merchandise and would rather keep Norah’s open than see the community lose that option due to perceived competition.
“I don’t see how anyone could be that affected by it,” he said. “I don’t see it affecting other businesses that much.”
The Emporium is also a business with a little experience in running an informal food service. Soon after Miyazaki first bought the business in 2005 (but before Byrnes began working there), the employees started a “pay what you can brunch.” Many people overpaid, which offset those who didn’t pay or didn’t pay as much, he said. It could have paid for itself, Miyazaki said, had food service been the main focus of the business.
“It could have worked, but I didn’t know how to run one…but it was kind of working,” he said.
The most promising way to allow Norah’s to remain in operation is to think about rezoning Byrnes’ property into the Central Business District, where a food service operation would be a permissible use, according to Curliss last week. The property is directly across the street from the business district, and is therefore already contiguous with the CBD, which would make it a more likely candidate for rezoning. And while the property is surrounded on three sides by residence C properties, an irregular zoning border is not unusual for the village, which includes many instances of “spot” zoning, Curliss said.
The Village is currently in the process of rewriting its zoning code, making the timing optimal for such a consideration. Village leaders met to discuss the zoning code this week and will continue to work toward a final draft through the next month or so, according to Curliss.
While Byrnes has not made an official statement about her intentions going forward, Babb hopes to work out a solution with the regulating bodies. He believes that her operation is so unusual that it doesn’t fit a mold that can be regulated.
“Norah doesn’t need to fit the health department’s exception because she does not qualify as a food service operation in the first place,” he said. “And that’s because she doesn’t charge or have a required donation for her food.”
However, he said, Byrnes is still trying to find an amicable solution to the present concerns.
“We’re trying to step back and make sure everything’s okay. We’re not trying to be antagonistic. [Norah] just wants to cook people food,” Babb said.