Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – The planned, celebrated and oft-delayed opening of a PastaLuego successor restaurant at the Arcata Veterans Memorial Building is not to be.
Today, PastaLuego owner Nicole “Coco” Maki removed her cooking equipment from the Vets Hall kitchen, under the watchful gaze of two Arcata Police officers there on civil standby.
A posting on the Vets Hall Facebook page announced the end of the arrangement, stating that the hall had to “change direction” with regard to the kitchen’s volunteer leadership. The post said that “Nicole Maki is no longer that person. It is unfortunate that she chose a different direction, we thank her for her short time she was with us and wish her luck in her future. “
For her part, Maki also vagueposted, thanking American Legion Post 274 Commander Jeff Sterling, who runs the hall, though not by name. “While I truly appreciated being a part of bringing the kitchen back to life, it became very obvious that My business, Pasta Luego to go, needs a majority of my time.”
Were the separation as amicable as the posts indicate, two APD officers wouldn’t have had to assert a calming presence Wednesday afternoon while Maki removed her possessions from the county-owned hall’s downstairs kitchen, and loaded them into a waiting U-Haul truck outside.
The latest events cap an increasingly tense dispute between Maki and Sterling over their well-publicized arrangement, under which she would operate the hall’s kitchen on behalf of the Legion Auxiliary.
The “14th and J Café “ as it was tentatively called, was to serve veteran functions such as luncheons and dinners, but also offer restaurant fare to the public. Recently, the hall kitchen was in the news as a possible site for feeding hungry Arcata High students.
The developing kitchen operation and its hoped-for revenue stream has been key to improving the hall’s difficult financial situation. “We’re taking on water,” Sterling told attendees at the January American Legion meeting. “We need to fundraise.”
But according to Maki, relations began to break down between her and Sterling in December, as disputes over hall management – most of them related only off the record – grew increasingly bitter.
Maki said she was paid just $900 since the November closure of PastaLuego in Jacoby’s Storehouse – $300 of it in cash. She said Sterling later told her that the payments had been for purchase of her kitchen equipment. But she said she hadn’t agreed to sell her culinary gear, which she retrieved today.
Sterling confirmed that Maki had no contract for employment, stating that she was “volunteering and trying to sell things.” He said she was paid an additional $1,000 cash.
Last Thursday, an environmental food scientist from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) inspected the facility to ascertain its adequacy for wholesale food preparation. The aged kitchen’s antiquated fixtures and storage practices failed on several counts, requiring repair and remediation before it may be used for wholesale production.
The vendor who’d hoped to use the kitchen, Louise Zuleger of Marie Louise’s Gourmet Seasonings and Finishing Salts, said the failed inspection cost her $500. She’s since applied to use the Foodworks Culinary Center in Aldergrove Industrial Park as an alternative.
Zuleger said the state inspector told her that when he arrived at the hall last Thursday, he went to Sterling’s office, located just off the front lobby. The CDPH official told him that he was there to inspect the kitchen, according to Zuleger, but Sterling told him there was no kitchen at the hall.
The inspector then called Zuleger and learned that the kitchen was downstairs and around the corner, so he proceeded there to conduct the inspection.
Sterling denied telling the state inspector that that there is no kitchen at the hall. He said he told him that he knew of no renter named Marie Louise’s Gourmet Seasonings and Finishing Salts because he hadn’t been involved in that rental.
When the subsequent inspection turned up multiple dealbreaking issues, Zuleger said the inspector told her that any businesses who had used the non-compliant kitchen were in violation and would be cited.
Maki said she found out last week that the hall kitchen hasn’t been inspected by Humboldt County Environmental Health and has no county health permit. That would disallow more than three meals to be offered to the public within a 90-day period. The kitchen may still be used to prepare food for internal hall functions.
Nonetheless, the hall has held frequent food-serving events and invited the public, including “Warrior’s Lunches” as well as dinners, including its “Little Italy” nights and recent “New Year’s Eve Pre-Game Bash.” That event was advertised on the Vets Hall Facebook page with the pitch, “Our house chef will be making pizza and we will also have an all you can eat nacho table. Pizza is $10 and nacho table is $10 per person.”
Sterling insisted Wednesday morning that the kitchen has been inspected and “absolutely” does possess a county health permit.
But Christine Messenger, county Department of Health & Human Services spokesperson, stated this afternoon, “The Arcata Vets Hall doesn't have a retail food permit from our Division of Environmental Health. We have not inspected the kitchen.”
The health permit would have been required for Maki’s 14th and J Café to open to the public on any regular basis, as would a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) from the City of Arcata.
But it doesn’t look like any official permitting was being sought for the restaurant. The city’s Community Development department has no record of any CUP application.
Wednesday afternoon, Sterling revised his remarks on the county permit claim, stating that he had been referring to a state CDPH permit issued last year to another wholesale kitchen renter, Angry Chiles, a local hot sauce manufacturer.
Angry Chiles didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry. It’s not clear how the defect-riddled kitchen would have passed an inspection last year, but failed it now. Zuleger said Angry Chiles had applied for, but didn’t yet have a CDPH permit.
On top of all this, the hall’s alcohol-serving license through the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency is in some jeopardy following complaints from neighbors over noise and visual impacts from hall activities.
An ABC hearing was held last week in Eureka, and a decision as to whether to allow continued alcohol service at the hall’s downstairs canteen will be rendered within 30 days. Along with the kitchen, the canteen has also been developed as a major revenue generator for the hall.
Sterling maintains that all the complications are misunderstandings, and hopes things work out for Maki. “We wish her the best for the future,” he said. “My goal is to help this community.”
He said he’s in talks with a veteran who has culinary experience to take over the kitchen operation.
Maki, who had been set to assume leadership of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit– Arcata # 274, now says she is taking a leave of absence from the organization.
Both the Legion and the Auxiliary hold their Montly Dinner and Membership meetings this Friday at the Vets Hall, 1425 J St. in Arcata. Dinner starts at 5 p.m., the meetings at 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, back at the still-vacant shop where PastaLuego was located in Jacoby’s Storehouse, more sour news surfaced this week: Frankie’s NY Bagels, who’d hoped to open a branch there, won’t be doing so. “Unfortunately things didn't come together as planned,” Frankie said.
Note: the writer is a member of American Legion Arcata Post 274. – Ed.