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Owner says zoning curfew crimps his cafe

Strings n' Rings' wet zoning requires it to close at 8 p.m. most days.

By BRENDAN WATSON, Times Staff Writer
Published November 9, 2007


"I can't imagine not coming here everyday," said Alan Smolar, owner of Strings n' Rings at 208 S Howard Ave. in Tampa. Smolar is upset about requirements that he close at 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
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[ROSS MANTLE, Times]
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COURIER CITY/OSCAWANA 

Want to have dinner at Strings n' Rings? You better hurry most weekdays. The cafe is only open until 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

Owner Alan Smolar said it's ridiculous, but it's the law - and it only applies to him.

Surrounding businesses on this restaurant row in SoHo are open until 11 p.m. or later. Just up the street at 208 S Howard Ave., Mangroves Bar and Grill serves food until 2 a.m.

"It's not like I am running some topless bar or something illicit," complained Smolar. "It's a cafe."

Smolar wants to stay open later on weekdays to catch the dinner crowd. On a recent Thursday he says he turned away 14 customers shortly after 8 p.m. He is also restricted from opening at all on Sundays, when he'd like to serve a brunch menu. He could stay open until 1 a.m., Fridays and Saturdays, but closes at 10 p.m. when he says customers gravitate toward bars and restaurants that serve liquor. He serves only beer and wine.

The restricted hours were incorporated into the building's wet-zoning permit, which is granted by the City Council and allows restaurants to serve alcohol.

Smolar said the restrictions have cost him $50,000 to $60,000 in additional revenue since he opened in July 2006. His restaurant is in the red and in danger of closing as a result, he said.

The city forces all restaurants to close by 3 a.m. But further restrictions are rare, according to Gloria Moreda, manager of the city's Land Development Coordination office. The City Council doesn't have the authority to shorten a restaurant's hours. Such restrictions can only be suggested by the individual seeking wet zoning. In this case, that person was Kathy Wiley, who owned the previous restaurant at 223 S Howard.

Wiley's wet-zoning permit had lapsed, and part of the sale agreement with Smolar was that she would reapply.

She did, but Smolar couldn't attend the hearing in April 2006. He was running another Strings n' Rings restaurant on Himes Avenue in Carrollwood. He thought the wet-zoning application was a simple procedure.

But parking on Howard is becoming a major headache for surrounding homeowners, according to Walter Crumbley of the Courier City/Oscawana Neighborhood Association who spoke to the City Council.

No one at that hearing objected to Smolar's restaurant. But Crumbley was concerned that it only had 21 parking spots.

Also, he pointed out, wet zoning does not apply to a particular restaurant, but to the building. So if Smolar's restaurant folded, another business that doesn't share his interest in being a quiet neighborhood cafe could open under the existing zoning.

At that hearing last year, Wiley told council members that her restaurant was primarily a lunch and early-dinner spot, and she was sure that Smolar's would be also.

During a recess in the meeting, council member John Dingfelder asked Wiley to verify Smolar's hours and to suggest restrictions as part of the wet zoning application.

Wiley called Smolar during the hearing and asked for his hours, but didn't say why. He casually threw out some abbreviated times he planned to open as the business got off the ground.

Just a few days before opening the restaurant, Smolar learned about the restrictions.

"It felt like someone had hit me in the chest with a 2-by-4. I couldn't believe it," he said.

Now, Moreda said, Smolar's only option for lifting the restrictions is to reapply for wet zoning.

Crumbley said Smolar has been a great neighbor, even hosting an association meeting. He wouldn't have any objections if Smolar reapplied.

But Smolar said that he can't afford to pay the $1,115 application fee with no guarantees of the outcome. Plus, he would have to wait three months for another City Council hearing.

"Every dollar I have right now goes into keeping the restaurant afloat," he said.

His only encouragement is that customers seem to like his burgers, wraps and onion rings. But the business is struggling. He put $300,000 into the new business and isn't sure how long he'll survive without the added business that might come with later hours.

His Carrollwood location has already closed because, Smolar said, he couldn't find the right management to run both locations.

"If I have to close, it will break my heart," he said. "It's the only mistress my wife will ever let me have."

Brendan Watson can be reached at bwatson@sptimes.com or 226-3302.

[Last modified November 8, 2007, 07:02:54]


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