Grace Coffee FB post stirs up community

BLYTHEWOOD – “The Town Government is shutting us down,” Matt Beyer, the owner of Grace Coffee posted on Facebook Thursday, Oct. 25. “Give the Mayor a call and let him know how the people of Blythewood feel about Grace Coffee,” Beyer posted along with Mayor J. Michael Ross’ personal cell phone number.

“My cell phone immediately blew up with calls from angry people,” Ross said. “I was shocked that someone would post my cell on the internet without my permission, and then post that the Town had shut his business down. We didn’t even know he had moved until an electrician came to Town Hall to get a permit to install an electric pole on the Community Center property for Grace Coffee,” Ross said.

“It is my understanding that Mr. Beyer left his current location in the parking lot of Bits and Pieces Consignment store after he chose not to sign a lease and start paying rent to the new owners,” Ross said. “That’s not the same thing as the Town shutting down his business. The move was between him and the property or store owners. We had nothing to do with it.”

Beyer posted a video on Saturday backing off his initial post that the Town had shut him down.

“The Town did not tell us to move off the Main Street property,” Beyer confirmed in the video. He said, however, that his comment about the Town shutting Grace Coffee down, was in reference to the Town not approving a permit for a new power pole at the Community Center property the day after he moved from Bits and Pieces.

“The other way they shut us down is they are clinging to the ordinance that we are a temporary vendor but they treated us for the last two years as a permanent business that is non-conforming,” Beyer said.

“Before he moved on Wednesday, Oct. 24, I think it was, we explained to him that if he moved, he would no longer be protected by the grandfather clause that Grace Coffee had enjoyed for the last two years,” Town Administrator Brian Cook told The Voice.

“It’s as simple as that,” Ross said. “He is welcome to set up in town just like the peanut man and all the other vendors, but he will now have to move every night and live by the same rules the other temporary vendors live by,” Ross said. “Those vendors can’t have permanent gas, water and electrical hookups.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Oct. 30, Beyer told the Voice that the Town has never told him that he was grandfathered in on that property and that he would no longer be grandfathered in if he moved. He said the town hall has never provided him documentation with that information.

According to Kristen Benini, the current owner of Bits and Pieces Consignment, Beyer operated in the store’s parking lot rent free for the last two years, with free storage and utilities, paying electricity only when it spiked, and then only for the spike.

“I don’t think it’s too much to ask for him to pay rent and utilities like every other business in town,” Benini said.

“I wish Matt all the luck in the world, but I wish he had thought of the consequences of his actions before he pulled his coffee wagon off the lot where he was protected by a grandfather clause,” Ross said. “He has turned himself into a temporary vendor that has to operate under the regular vendor rules.”

“We did not want to move,” Beyer posted on Facebook, “but there are new owners of Bits and Pieces Consignment, and they are not allowing us to be there anymore.”

In an interview with The Voice, Beyer said Annette Wilson, the new owner, did push him off the property.

Beyer said he received a rental agreement from the new owners Tuesday, Oct. 16.

“But before I even got a chance to talk to them, Friday morning I got a text saying they wanted to retract it, that they didn’t want us there, so we needed to be out by Oct. 31,” Beyer said.

Emails and texts obtained by The Voice from Wilson appear to contradict those claims.

Wilson, who took ownership of Bits and Pieces on Nov. 1, said she met with the owners, renters and Beyer in late July to discuss the transition of ownership and that Beyer was told by the property owner at that time that he would be expected to begin paying rent under the new ownership.

“Mr. Beyer and I discussed the contract for several weeks in phone conversations before we drew it up,” Wilson said. “I scheduled a meeting with Mr. Beyer on Oct. 4 to go over the rental agreement, but he cancelled the day before, saying he was too busy to meet.”

After that, from Oct. 7 until Oct. 16, both parties say they exchanged emails and talked on the phone about the contract.

“On Oct. 17, I emailed the contract to Mr. Beyer. He texted me that he received it and he asked me to remove the landscape clause. I told him I would. I then texted all involved (property owners, current renters and Beyer) to schedule a time for us all to meet and to finalize my lease agreement with Mr. Beyer,” Wilson said.

“The earliest I can meet is Friday,” Beyer emailed back. “I will know my schedule better after tomorrow (Thursday). I will be back in touch.”

“But we never heard anything else from him,” Wilson said.  “By Friday, when we hadn’t heard from him, and it was the second meeting he had missed to discuss or sign the lease agreement, I had to assume that he was not that interested. After all our communications, I felt he just kept putting us off. It was getting close to Nov. 1, and I didn’t have a signed agreement. So I emailed him what I thought was apparent, that this was not a good fit for either of us and I withdrew the lease,” Wilson said.

“After our initial meeting in late July, I never was able to meet with him again,” Wilson said. “We never said to him that we did not want him there. We tried. We changed the lease to his specifications, everything. He could have stayed there. All he had to do was sign the lease. Even without signing it, he could have stayed until Oct. 31.”

Beyer pulled up stakes on Wednesday, Oct. 24 according to Benini. He got permission from Larry Sharpe to set up on the Community Center, which Sharpe owns, that same day. But because his grandfathered status did not extend to that property, Beyer could not obtain a permit for an electrical pole because he was, at that point, a temporary vendor and no longer grandfathered as a permanent structure.

On Wednesday, Oct. 31, Sharpe told The Voice that Beyer had informed him that he (Beyer) would be moving the coffee trailer that day.

Beyer told The Voice on Oct. 30 that he did not know where he would set up next.

“I’m not going to debate the town government, but I am going to allow the community to speak up and if they want us, the government has an opportunity to step in and ask, ‘How can we make this happen?’” Beyer said.

History of Grandfathering

When Grace Coffee rolled into town in December 2016, it was considered a mobile vendor. Beyer initially removed the trailer every night as he had agreed to do when he was allowed to set up shop. But as the business became successful, Beyer refused to remove the trailer at night.

Next, Beyer wanted a Certificate of Appropriateness (COA) which is only given to brick and mortar buildings.

The Board of Architectural Review (BAR) met on April 17, 2017 to consider Grace Coffee’s request for a COA for its location in the parking lot of 208 Main Street.

Under what one board member described to The Voice as ‘pressure’ from Town Hall, the BAR reluctantly granted Grace Coffee a temporary COA for a period of one year. According to the Town’s former administrator, Gary Parker, the Town had no ordinance in place to address the vending stand, but the Town’s Planning Consultant (at that time) Michael Criss, who, during government meetings championed street vendors, interpreted it to be a structure.

The temporary COA was intended to allow the Town time to review and create regulations to address vending stands.

On April 24, an ordinance that superseded the temporary COA issued by the BAR a week earlier, made Grace Coffee a non-conforming use, Town Administrator Brian Cook wrote in a memo to the BAR. This also gave Grace Coffee the same zoning protections of brick and mortar buildings, something none of the other vendors enjoyed. But the non-conforming status was only applicable at the 208 Main Street address.

“I really have a struggle with the fairness of this,” Jim McLean, Co-Chair of the BAR said at the time.  “Are the brick & mortar stores being undercut?  They have made a hard investment in the town and are abiding by the regulations and restrictions.  The caveat of unfair competition needs to be addressed.”