Communal breakfast at risk
- Published: July 23, 2015
“I’m not much into making a big deal about it,” said Lamar Spracklen, owner of the Yellow Springs Country Bed and Breakfast. “It’s not bothering anybody. It’s a place where neighbors can visit and enjoy each other’s company. In my opinion, it’s none of the health department’s business.”
Spracklen is referring to the recent request by the Greene County health department that the bed and breakfast suspend a weekly tradition. Every Tuesday morning, chef Norah Byrnes prepares a lavish breakfast at the bed and breakfast. Homemade casseroles, pies, fruit, quiches, and pastries are common fare. The meal is unadvertised, open to anyone, and independent of the meals offered to guests staying at the bed and breakfast on Hilt Road.
Spracklen said the Tuesday breakfasts are much more akin to “friends dropping by where there happens to be food” than the goings on of a proper restaurant.
“There is no menu. It’s donation only. You pay what you think the breakfast is worth,” he explained. “I don’t know what anybody gives. Some give more than it’s worth, some don’t give anything. Some come because they don’t have any money, and some come because they are not comfortable in restaurants.”
But last Tuesday, the Greene County Health Department stopped by the bed and breakfast to investigate after receiving a complaint on Monday that the establishment was serving breakfast illegally, said Debbie Leopold, Director of Environmental Health Services for the Greene County Combined Health District. Complaints about food safety issues are taken very seriously, she explained, hence the prompt visit. The health department found that the bed and breakfast was not following protocol necessary to be a licensed food service operation. A letter was sent to the owner the following day requiring that he suspend food service operations.
The recent drama is familiar to Byrnes. Byrnes served donation-only breakfasts out of her home in Yellow Springs through 2012 before the meals likewise drew visits from both the county and the Village of Yellow Springs. In that instance, the problem was one of zoning. Serving breakfast constituted what some felt was a commercial enterprise. As a result, a special zoning meeting was convened in February 2012 to consider rezoning her neighborhood to accommodate the meals. The idea was not well received. The increased traffic made parking more difficult and disrupted the tranquility of an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood, according to citizens who spoke at the meeting. Repeated dust-ups led Byrnes to stop serving breakfast within the village entirely.
The more recent complaints, however, are not about zoning issues. “I’ve had no one express concern about Norah’s breakfasts,” said Miami Township Zoning Inspector Richard Zopf. “The health department is the fundamental objector.”
The current breakfast situation is dicey because it straddles a few competing food service regulations. Both Spracklen and the health department referenced the same code in justifying their respective actions. Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3717.42 B2 exempts a private home operating as a bed and breakfast from licensing requirements if the home is owner-occupied, there are no more than six bedrooms and 16 or fewer guests, and breakfast is the only meal served.
The health department contends that the Yellow Springs Country Bed and Breakfast is not owner-occupied, as Spracklen does not live there. Leopold explained that there is a license exemption for operations serving less than 13 people a day, but this wasn’t applicable when the health department visited because “at least 25–40 people were at the bed and breakfast on Tuesday, with more on the way.”
Greene County says that a license is required if “donations are presented for consideration” and “the food is perishable.” Perishable items include meat, dairy, and dough products, which Byrnes serves. And the bed and breakfast accepts donations for the Tuesday breakfast. But the owner could apply for a temporary five-day exemption and theoretically keep serving breakfast, Leopold explained, and he could actually do this up to 10 times a year.
In order to continue serving meals the way it has been, however, the bed and breakfast would need to make some changes. Leopold noted that it’s not the Tuesday breakfast that prompted the investigation but the operations of the bed and breakfast as a whole. They would need to submit building plans, update their kitchen, and undergo inspections by the health and the fire departments, Leopold explained. And they would need to submit a menu, as the food served plays a part in licensing as well.
The fact that the health department had encountered Byrnes before the most recent complaint does not affect their investigations, which are carried out regardless of who is involved, and irrespective of his or her previous encounters with the health department, Leopold said. “The Bed and Breakfast needs to abide by the rules like all other restaurants and establishments do, and they haven’t been,” she said.
Byrnes asked only that people remember that “the story is not about [her] — it is about what the community wants and needs.” She declined to comment further.
Despite the technical issues, Byrnes’ meals have many fans who appreciate what she brings to the Yellow Springs community.
“It’s an amazing breakfast. We come here because it’s a delicious breakfast, it’s a beautiful place, and it’s fun to be able to chat in a wonderful atmosphere with friends. And we meet new people,” said Yellow Springs resident Anne Bohlen.
“When someone put the care and love into preparing food like that, you can taste it. [Byrnes] has the capacity to bring the community together over food, and that’s amazing,” said Sandy King, also of Yellow Springs. “I want to know who would complain about what she’s doing. What — we can’t love each other a few hours a week without the authorities coming down on us?”
“It’s very different from a regular restaurant. It’s much better. Nobody’s on their cell phones,” laughed Lola Scheffler, who has traveled from Springfield for the breakfasts. “It’s like your mom cooking in a kitchen.”
As for now, the breakfast issue remains unresolved. Spracklen is aware of the issues facing the bed and breakfast, and Leopold said the Health Department is waiting to hear from him to see how and if he is willing to accommodate their requirements. “We’re just taking it one day at a time,” said Spracklen.
Spracklen noted he has made at least one change while looking into the issue. “We now have a sign saying we don’t accept donations for food. But we do accept donations to tour the historic property.”