Tinhorn Flats owners repeatedly defy restaurant closure: ‘We will never back down’
When Danny Rocha pulled up to Tinhorn Flats, a bar and grill in Burbank that’s been at the center of a battle over required restaurant closures during the pandemic, he was looking to get a burger — with a side of solidarity.
But the 30-year-old Glassell Park resident found the eatery’s swinging doors boarded up Wednesday, a spray-painted message of “Open 4 BIZ” nullified by a stack of orange sandbags propped against the plywood.
“The government’s coming between us and our stomach, and it’s an invasion of privacy,” he said.
The day before, Lucas Lepejian, the son of the restaurant’s owner, was arrested by police for the third time in six days. He had started to remove the sandbags from the exterior of the Western-themed establishment, placed there by city officials to prevent entry into what Burbank has deemed an unsafe environment. The 20-year-old was released a few hours later.
The Burbank Police Department “vehemently condemns” the restaurant operators’ “persistent unlawful behavior,” Chief Scott LaChasse said in a statement last week.
Less than 24 hours after his release, Lepejian said he was considering a plan to reopen.
It’s the latest in a saga that has pitted Burbank officials against the family-owned restaurant, which has consistently bucked county health orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Late November is when things “really hit the fan,” said Lepejian, whose father, Baret, owns Tinhorn Flats. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health ordered restaurants to close outdoor dining the day before Thanksgiving.
After offering only takeout and delivery for a little while, Baret Lepejian said the restaurant was taking too much of a financial hit. It reopened outdoor service.
On Jan. 8, the city of Burbank issued a notice of violation, calling out Tinhorn Flats’ violation of the health order.
By the end of the month, the county stripped the restaurant of its health permit, making it illegal for Tinhorn Flats to sell food. Even as other restaurants were permitted to reopen for outdoor dining in late January, Tinhorn Flats was required to keep its doors shut.
A sort of war broke out.
Bars in L.A. County that don’t serve food can reopen Monday, outdoors only and at limited capacity. Some prepare to reopen, while other venues wait.
City officials revoked the restaurant’s conditional use permit in late February.
Power to the restaurant was shut off March 13 after the city received permission from a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to do so. The Lepejians soon brought in a generator to provide limited electricity.
Several days later, the city padlocked the restaurant’s doors, which also was court-sanctioned. Lucas Lepejian sawed the lock off. Before his arrest Tuesday, he had been arrested April 1 and again April 2 after he was seen leaving the restaurant.
The Burbank city attorney’s office is reviewing the cases. No determination has been made about what, if any, charges will be brought, but a criminal misdemeanor is a possibility, Assistant City Atty. Anita Clarke said.
Burbank has an entire page on its city website dedicated to updates on the battle with the rogue restaurateurs.
“This has been a challenging situation that may not be easily understood and resolved, especially when you are dealing with persons who willfully disobey the law,” the city said in a recent release. “This is a very divisive issue within our city and it’s at a time when we should be focusing on our recovery from the pandemic, but instead it is being overshadowed by this one defiant actor in our community.”
Burbank city officials declined through a spokesperson to comment beyond their public statements.
The restaurant, in the heart of Burbank’s funky shopping district, has become one of many points of contention pitting business owners against public health officials during the pandemic. Other restaurateurs have fought closures, including a Sherman Oaks bar and grill owner whose tearful viral video decrying the orders shows a film shoot’s large craft-services setup operating nearby.
A statewide restaurant industry group, along with a downtown L.A. restaurant, fought the outdoor dining ban in L.A. County Superior Court. After a sympathetic judge limited the county’s restrictions in early December, the 2nd District Court of Appeal on March 1 upheld the county’s right to implement the closures in the name of public health.
“We now hold that courts should be extremely deferential to public health authorities, particularly during a pandemic and particularly where, as here, the public health authorities have demonstrated a rational basis for their actions,” Justice Brian Currey wrote in a unanimously supported opinion at the time.
Since then, many of the arguments have become moot as Los Angeles County’s coronavirus case counts dipped low enough for it to advance through multiple tiers of the state’s reopening blueprint.
On March 15, L.A. County entered the red tier of California’s four-step color-coded reopening road map, allowing indoor dining to resume at restaurants at 25% capacity. Less than a month later, after L.A. entered the orange tier, indoor dining capacity was allowed to increase to 50% this week.
But not at Tinhorn Flats.
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Baret Lepejian, who lives in Thailand while his children operate the restaurant, said he received letters from all over the world. Some write they want to kill him; others offer glowing praise of his defiance.
Before buying Tinhorn Flats 17 years ago, Lepejian worked in the nearby photo lab his parents opened in the early 1970s. Though he’s thousands of miles away, he said he supported his son’s actions. He’s vowed never to pay the fines — roughly $50,000 — the restaurant has racked up.
Despite the appellate court ruling, he insists L.A. County’s restaurant closures are not lawful.
“Show me one shred of evidence how I am endangering the public,” Lepejian said by phone. “This has never been about safety or the public. It’s never been about that. This whole thing is about fear and control.”
Mark Geragos, an attorney representing the restaurant, said he believed the city had exceeded the court’s order. With the barricades and arrests, “it basically looks like the siege of Fallujah over there — over outdoor dining,” said Geragos, who has been involved in several similar suits, including one on behalf of his own restaurant.
A few dozen supporters of the restaurant gathered outside the locked premises Friday afternoon. Some carried bullhorns to project their message of perceived oppression. Others carried signs bearing such messages as “Small Businesses Matter” and “Freedom Over Tyranny.” No one appeared to be wearing a mask.
At times, attendees’ passion boiled over into aggression.
A news photographer was swarmed by several people who accused her of wanting to “dox” them, or expose their personal information online. Some made disparaging remarks about her being pregnant.
The police interceded and defused the situation. But once they left, the crowd gathered again. A man who said he supported the restaurant but disagreed with the bullying tactics of some of the attendees told them to stand down.
Dennis Napolitano, a Burbank resident who organizes the recurring rallies, apologized for the incident.
“This is about our freedom,” he said of the gatherings. “Since everything is opening up, why are they still persecuting this place?”
Valley Village resident Patsy Walker pulled over to join the rally when she saw the multitude of U.S. flags. She said she disagreed with the angry rhetoric espoused by some attendees but thought that the business should be allowed to open. Through tears, Walker related how her daughter and son-in-law’s gymnastics studio was closed because of the pandemic.
“This poor guy,” Walker said of the owner, “I feel like I know him because of my daughter’s situation.”
Heather, 23, who lives near the restaurant, pushed back on the characterization of the owners as victims.
“They didn’t follow the law and they didn’t follow the closure orders, and these are the consequences for their actions,” said Heather, who declined to give her last name out of fear of retribution from the rallygoers. She was wearing a gray mask and walking her dog as the gathering could be heard down the block.
Last weekend, she said, she saw a fight break out, and she is grateful for the police presence that’s arrived since then. Besides the looming threat of violence, supporters leave trash strewn about and urinate in nearby alleyways, she said. When the owners were asked to take measures to clean up, she said, they brushed her family off.
“So the fact that he’s trying to play the victim in this situation is just really uncalled for, considering the fact that he hasn’t done anything for the neighborhood,” she said, “and he hasn’t done anything for this community in a positive way.”
Lucas Lepejian was at the rally carrying a sign that read “Fight Real Crime,” ostensibly referring to his belief that police were misdirecting their energy by monitoring the restaurant.
He’s framed his defiance of the closure as opposition to government overreach. He said he didn’t wear a mask and would not require employees or customers to either. He said he didn’t pass judgment on those who masked up, noting before the event, “We’re pro-freedom, not anti-mask.”
A court hearing on the restaurant closure was held Friday. Geragos said that the matter wasn’t settled and that he planned to file a motion to dissolve the mandated closure.
Like his father, Lepejian has also promised to keep fighting.
“We will never back down,” he said.
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