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Garcetti loosens banner restrictions after cafe gets fined for ‘we’re open’ sign

AJ Shalob at his family-owned restaurant, Crave Cafe.
AJ Shalob, right, stands in his family-owned Studio City restaurant, Crave Cafe, which was fined $356 for displaying a sign saying it was open for takeout and delivery without permission. Mayor Eric Garcetti cut the fine and changed the signage rules Friday.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After city building inspectors fined a struggling cafe for hanging an “open for takeout and delivery” sign, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti cut the penalty Friday and cleared the way for more businesses to put up banners.

This week, the owners of Studio City’s Crave Cafe received a letter containing a $356 fine from Los Angeles’ Department of Building and Safety. AJ Shalob, 38, runs the diner with his family. He said the pricey penalty weighs heavily on the restaurant, which has seen a 70% drop in business since the coronavirus outbreak began.

“They’re asking me for something I don’t have,” Shalob said Thursday. “If we keep going like this, we’re done, we’re not going to last.”

During Friday evening’s media briefing, Garcetti said the fine was issued after Building and Safety received a complaint about the banner, which was hung without a permit in violation of the city’s rules.

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“While the inspectors were doing the job we ask them to do based on the way the rules were written, tonight I’m changing those rules so they can stay focused on helping businesses,” Garcetti said. “We need to support safely operating businesses, not cite them.”

So the mayor is “temporarily waving the requirement for businesses to obtain a permit for these types of fines. Additionally, the city will rescind any fines that have been issued.”

Shalob called the decision a big relief: “We got what we were looking for.”

It’s been tough to keep Crave open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Shalob said. The restaurant has had to lay off more than a dozen workers as customers stay home. Ever-changing health orders have added more challenges, he said. Restrictions on inside dining have been particularly hard because the restaurant doesn’t have a large outside seating area, he said.

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“They keep saying, ‘We want to support the small businesses, do not close, people are going bankrupt.’ Well, they’re making us do that. We are trying every single thing,” Shalob said.

The restaurant is “my baby…. I spend 14 to 16 hours a day at the store, sometimes seven days a week. This is where I get my bread and butter, and feed my family and my kids,” Shalob said. He’s had the restaurant with his sister and mother for nearly six years.

Shalob hoped the sign would bring in more customers. Many residents had called to ask if Crave was closed after seeing chairs on tables, Shalob said. He had the banner printed and strung it up. Afterward, more customers came in, he said.

Other nearby businesses put up signs too. Each one received a fine: 24 Hot Chicken & Waffle Bar, Fantastic Sams salon, Chop Stop salad shop and Trader Joe’s.

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“I’m not even damaging the city, you know, I’m not damaging the view, I’m not trashing the building. What I did is put a sign right on my door, a nice banner,” Shalob said.

Building and Safety spokesperson Jeff Napier said his department had no choice but to issue the fine after it received a complaint and investigated.

“Our approach has always been impartial. We’re not taking sides. We look at it, and if there’s a violation and we have to address it, we take the necessary action,” Napier said.

He said that the department would typically give businesses a warning before issuing a fine, but hasn’t been inspectors inside storefronts because of the coronavirus, possibly contributing to the lack of communication.

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“Our workforce is pretty low, so the inspectors don’t have the luxury of reaching out and doing the typical outreach,” Napier said.

Esther Walker, executive director of the Studio City Chamber of Commerce, criticized the fines before Garcetti’s announcement.

“I think it’s absurd,” she said. “Businesses need all the help they can get, not just from community members going out to support them, but especially from the city. So to fine someone for hanging a banner in front of their store that says we’re open for takeout and curbside is just so narrow minded.”

Garcetti, who first acknowledged the restaurant’s fine after being asked about it during a Wednesday media briefing, said he knows “businesses are struggling to stay open. We need to do everything we can to help. They’re struggling to pay their employees, they’re struggling to serve their community, and I want them to know that their city is here to help.”

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After the rule relaxation, Shalob thought of one way the city could make his business run better: He wants to see an order pushing property managers to allow restaurants to set up outside dining areas in parking lots.

“Right now we’re all in pain. The medicine is standing next to us. Help us out,” he said.


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