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Whatever Lola wants.

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DRINKS FLOWED AND CHATTER buzzed as the horn player and the drummer of a classic jazz band entertained the well-dressed crowd that bustled inside the 192-seat restaurant called Loin. On a recent Monday night--typically the slowest in the restaurant industry--business for this intimately styled, 3,300-square-foot dining destination in New York City's trendy SoHo neighborhood seemed solid. But in this case, looks were very deceiving.

For the last four years, the restaurant's owner, Lola-Gayle Patrick-Odeen, and her husband. Tom, have been engaged in a bitter and costly battle with the SoHo Alliance, a powerful community group that opposed the restaurant's license applications to offer liquor and live music--major revenue drivers for its business. But one of the restaurant's most outspoken opponents argues that this clash could have been avoided. "I said to her from day one, 'Gayle, you really should move somewhere else,'" says Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance. "'We're going to fight this and we're going to win. We always win.'"

Patrick-Odeen denies that Sweeney said this to her. But she didn't care about the organization's size or influence. While the SoHo Alliance didn't prevail--Lola now operates with a full liquor license and live music as its owner intended--the conflict took a substantial toll. Patrick-Odeen and her husband were forced to liquidate $800,000 in stocks and property; they lost investors and an attorney; and they are facing an estimated $250,000 in legal bills. The mounting debts forced the restaurant to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors in late August.

For Patrick-Odeen, the jury is still out on whether or not Lola will ultimately survive.

A QUESTION OF RIGHTS

The petite owner says the exhausting fight challenged much more than her right to open a business, it attacked her integrity as a business owner as well as her basic civil rights. Patrick-Odeen, originally from Barbados, believes racism fuels this controversy--the Patrick-Odeens are an interracial couple. "If my husband and I were a white couple ... I don't believe [this would be happening]," she says. "What we were hearing from people in the community is that [opponents] were saying things like we were going to be a tipping point to turn SoHo into another Harlem, that we were opening a black, hip-hop club."

Sweeney denies his opposition was racially motivated. Instead, he says, it stemmed from the community being fed up with the oversaturation of establishments serving alcohol in the neighborhood. The group was also particularly opposed to Lola because of the plan to offer late-night live music in the partly residential area. "It really pisses me off that race was ever introduced," Sweeney emphasizes. "It was a bad business decision. I think she's using that as a smoke screen to offer an escape to her investors."

Sweeney, however, doesn't deny the racially charged comments he made earlier this year to The Village Voice. He told the weekly newspaper: "I don't think you need a martini to go with chitlins and collard greens. What wine goes with jambalaya? I can't think of one.... There is a place right next to them that sells empanadas and they don't serve liquor. You don't need liquor if you are a good restaurant to stay in business."

"I am not racist" he continued. "[Patrick-Odeen] is from Barbados. She's a British subject. She's not African American. She didn't suffer Jim Crow, Reconstruction, lynching.... For her to exploit the true sufferings of African Americans is disgraceful."

In response to his interview, Sweeney says, "'I give good quote. You don't get notoriety or publicity if you say bland things." He characterizes his comments as "snarky" and says he "was exasperated" at the end of the interview with the Voice.

Lola has never offered chitterlings on its Southern-inspired menu. But it did provide a strong 19-year reputation and an upscale, loyal following from its previous location in a neighboring section of Manhattan known as Chelsea. The attraction, aside from the fare and a full bar, was the Sunday gospel brunch as well as live jazz and classic R&B during the week.

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A STORIED HISTORY

The restaurant experienced financial woes after the 1988 death of its original owner, Eugene Fracchia, who left 90% to his boyfriend, William Manning, and 10% to close friend Yvonne Bell. According to Tom, in the early 1990s, Manning sought his advice. Tom, a native Swede, who comes from a family of restaurateurs, moved to the States when he was 17 and worked in restaurant management. Problems arose, says Tom, because the new owners were at odds. "It was a viable business," he says. "There were two owners that just did not get along and were drawing huge salaries. Eventually it became clear that, financially, the business could not support the two of them." He says he recommended they file for bankruptcy, which they did in 1991.

"I came in with a competing plan [and] was awarded all of the shares of the restaurant by the court," Tom says. He and the restaurant's then-chef, Lynne Aronson, ran the business as partners until 2000, when Tom became sole owner.

At that time, Gayle Patrick-Odeen had been working for Chase Manhattan Bank for nearly 20 years. She'd met Tom in 1995 and eventually became a fixture at the restaurant, helping the staff in the evening. After 9-11 she retired, and joined Tom full time in 2002.

By 2003 the business was turning a profit, but faced with a rent increase from $14,900 a month to close to $30,000, the couple opted not to renew its lease. In September 2004 they signed a lease through September 2015 further south in Manhattan in a trendy neighborhood. The property was an empty, ground-floor space that had been vacant for three years in SoHo.

At the same time, Patrick-Odeen invited two investors aboard, became the majority owner, and added "Lola" to her given name, Gayle (she changed it legally earlier this year). "She was the personification of everything that Lola embodied," her husband says.

She was given six months free rent to turn the new space with a stage and multilevel seating into a traditional jazz club. All plans seemed to be proceeding smoothly until the couple met their first obstacle--obtaining a liquor license.

THE LONG BATTLE BEGINS

In 2004 Community Board 2's Business Committee welcomed Lola into the neighborhood with a unanimous vote recommending that the New York State Liquor Authority approve a full liquor license for the restaurant. However, later that month at the full board meeting, the restaurateurs saw their request to have the Community Board recommend approval for a liquor license was unanimously opposed.

"I think she really got a really raw deal," says Bob Rinaolo, the chair of the business committee at the time. "Usually the full board is nothing more than a rubber stamp of the business committee because the committee does the interviewing. But Sweeney and his little band of Indians were at the full board meeting.... It basically centered on Sweeney, who is a racist, and Marie Evans," a real estate broker whose apartment is approximately 20 feet from Lola's side courtyard. Others who were on the business committee at the time argue that race was not a factor.

Between the business committee and full board meetings, Patrick-Odeen says she enjoyed a very welcoming telephone conversation with Sweeney. But Evans was clear about her disapproval: "I don't want you here," she said during a call to Patrick-Odeen. "I don't know who you think you are bringing this business into my backyard. I'm going to make sure you're never successful.... If I were you I would pack my bags and leave."

Evans, did not return phone calls or e-mails requesting comment on the matter and has not been quoted in the media about this issue. She and her husband, John, have appeared at hearings on behalf of the SoHo Alliance to speak out against the restaurant.

A variety of businesses have occupied the bottom floor of the six-story building, which had been zoned for manufacturing then commercial, before Lola moved in. Chaos, a nightclub, once occupied the second floor, and memories of loud late-night partying still haunt the neighbors and were brought up as reasons to oppose Lola.

The day following her phone conversation with Evans and Sweeney, Patrick-Odeen arrived in SoHo to find neon green fliers scattered throughout the neighborhood. The fliers read "SOHO RESIDENTS BEWARE!!!!!!! Help Preserve the Community" and announced Lola's desire for a liquor license. Stating that there were already 17 bars in 1 1/2 blocks, it urged residents to come to Community Board 2's full board meeting and implied that those who didn't appear were in favor of "diminishing property values" and "more crime?

Patrick-Odeen was accused of reneging on promises made at the business committee meeting, according to those in attendance. Minutes from that meeting, state that Patrick-Odeen agreed to put her plans for an outdoor seating area on hold for three years, to use front windows that do not open onto the street in order to contain the music, and to close at midnight instead of 4 a.m., which was the closing time on the original liquor license application. Patrick-Odeen disputes the minutes, arguing that she told the business committee that she intended to put the outdoor space on hold temporarily to give the community an opportunity to get to know them, not to postpone outdoor seating for three years. As for keeping the French doors closed, she says, "Everybody around here, when the weather is nice, they have their doors open. Why do I have to keep mine closed?"

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In addition to the noise issue, minutes show that approval to recommend Lola for a liquor license was unanimously opposed by the full board because the restaurant didn't meet the required findings of the 500-foot rule, which prohibits the issuance of a license to any location within 500 feet of three other businesses with liquor licenses unless the business can successfully show that having one would benefit the public. In Lola's case, the community board objected, forcing Patrick-Odeen to defend herself at a State Liquor Authority hearing in November 2004.

Lola's opponents turned out in full force and complained that the community was already oversaturated with 35 drinking establishments within 500 feet of the proposed premises (Sweeney argued that most of the licenses were issued before the law went into effect in 1993), and that traffic would worsen. Patrick-Odeen disputed the accusations and presented more than 535 signatures of support from the community.

"We don't oppose liquor licenses generally," Sweeney argued at the hearing. "This block just can't take another one."

City Councilman Alan J. Gerson, who wrote a letter to the State Liquor Authority in opposition to the license agreed. 'Any applicant for a liquor license at that location would have received opposition? He also echoed the community board's concern over the outdoor courtyard and intended sidewalk cafe, two things he said his office usually scrutinizes when they are proposed in residential areas.

"We offered to work with the restaurant and community, as we do in many cases, to see if we could bridge the gap and come up with plans and constraints to allow the business to go forward," Gerson offers. "In fact, we had a meeting with Lola and gave them some suggestions. I think they took some of those suggestions [such as double-paned glass windows.]"

The 500-foot hearing went in Lola's favor and the SLA issued the license in March 2005. A group led by the Alliance filed suit against Lola and the State Liquor Authority in New York State Supreme Court, presenting 509 names of petitioners. Judge Marilyn Sharer annulled the license in November 2005, citing the 500-foot rule, and wrote that the State Liquor Authority "acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner granting an on-premises liquor license without detailing its reasons why and how it would be in the public interest to do so."

Patrick-Odeen filed an appeal in the Appellate Division and hired a private investigator, who found that many of the 509 petitioners had not consented to supplying their name in opposition. The Alliance conceded that some of the names had been falsely included.

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The Appellate Division overturned the ruling by the State Supreme Court on Aug. 31, 2006 and ordered the license reinstated. Only the license was reissued stating Lola would "be a bona fide restaurant with no live music or dancing even though live music and dancing had been discussed from the start." Lola's original application stated there would only be background music, an error Patrick-Odeen believes was made by her attorney's office. Minutes from the community board's business committee and full board meetings both show live music was discussed.

OPEN BUSINESS

When Lola finally opened in fall 2007 with a liquor license that only allowed background music, it struggled to attract the number of customers it had in Chelsea. Patrick-Odeen estimates that 60% of her clients patronized her business because of the live music.

The number of patrons dropped from 200 at its old location to 35, making it difficult to pay the monthly rent of $21,000, in addition to $10,000 in arrears due for three years. Tom estimates that the restaurant had gone from grossing between $300,000 and $400,000 a month at the Chelsea location, depending on the time of year, to less than half that. "We're just breaking even now but we have so much that we owe that we're still paying money backward," says Patrick-Odeen. "That's why we're in this hole."

The two investors secured in 2004 had left following the legal battle. Another investor left when there were problems getting live music. Patrick-Odeen estimates the couple liquidated at least $800,000.

Lola isn't the only restaurant to go up against the SoHo Alliance, which vehemently fought Besito, an upscale, 69-seat gourmet Latin fusion restaurant that opened in October 2004 with a beer and wine license. Five months later Besito sought to upgrade to a full liquor license in order to remain competitive. Community Board 2 opposed it at two meetings, citing an oversaturation of bars, noise, and traffic. "The Evans didn't want it there," offers Sweeney. "[People] said we were anti-Hispanic."

The board relented and voted in favor of the license, which was eventually granted. But by then, the business had taken such a financial hit that it wasn't able to remain open. A Japanese fusion restaurant called K, now occupies that space. And there was no opposition to its license. "It's very Zenj," Sweeney says in support. "It would look silly to oppose the application."

Nor did anyone oppose the liquor license application for nearby Aurora, a restaurant Sweeney says he ate at when it was located in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. He characterized it as a family restaurant. None of those establishments offer live music, but there are others near Lola that do. Sweeney argues that the Alliance evaluates each situation on a case-by-case basis. "It has nothing to do with Lola. She's taking it so personally."

But Binaolo charges, "Picking and choosing is profiling," and he believes Patrick-Odeen has every right to take the issue personally. "What I don't buy into is they have virtually bankrupted Gayle and her husband over the issue. And you know what? Some acceptable demographic of theirs will show up and get a license and have a band that plays until four in the morning," he continues. "What they really mean is 'We don't like this woman but we can't say that, so we'll say this. But if someone else comes along that we like and wants to rent that space after she's gone then they'll get what she couldn't.'"

WEIGHING THE PROS AND CONS

The State Liquor Authority's two commissioners finally awarded Lola its license with music on July 17, 2008, after crucial paperwork, including a letter submitted in 2004 regarding Lola amending its original application to include live music, surfaced. The documents showed that live music had indeed been discussed at Community Board 2's business committee and full board meetings.

A lobbyist for Patrick-Odeen forced the Authority to review the paperwork She also credits her attorney, Terry Flynn Jr., who handled the liquor license, without pay. The attorney representing her in the 500-foot rule lawsuit dropped the case for lack of payment. The New York State Supreme Court case is still open but remains at status quo because nothing can happen with it until the Lola bankruptcy case is settled in federal court according to SoHo Alliance attorney Barry Mallin.

Patrick-Odeen agreed to a liquor license that came with several stipulations that restrict live music to 10 p.m. on weeknights and midnight Thursday to Saturday. Also, the inner doors of the premises must remain closed while live music is being played and the restaurant not try to expand to the outside courtyard area, which Patrick-Odeen estimates would bring between $1 million and $1.5 million of revenue annually.

Mallin says he is pleased with the outcome. "She can continue in business but we felt she was put on a tight leash." Sweeney called it a "Pyrrhic victory" for both parties but believes the lengthy fight could have been avoided. "If Tom and Gayle had just come to us like everyone else does and said, 'This is what we want to do and how can we work this out,' it would have saved them close to a million dollars and a lot of aggravation."

Patrick-Odeen says if she wanted to, she could serve food and lemonade in the courtyard, which is under the Evans' window, but that isn't in her plans As for the limited hours of operation with music, she isn't thrilled about that. "We are not a club. We don't need to be open until 4 o'clock in the morning, but we would certainly like the flexibility if we need to," she says.

She refused to sign a settlement agreement that would table the outdoor space issue and prevent her from taking legal action against the SoHo Alliance. I have suffered so much in four years. Why should I be forced to give up revenue and sign something that relieves you of the responsibility that you owe me for taking me through what you did?"

She hasn't decided whether to pursue legal action.

A DIFFERENT STRATEGY?

Patrick-Odeen could have proceeded differently from the onset, Robert Ferrari, a Manhattan attorney who specializes in helping clients obtain liquor licenses and who followed the case as an impartial outsider, suggests getting community board approval before a lease is signed. He sometimes recommends hiring an outside consultant, such as a lobbyist, to steer a community board. Occasionally he may meet with an aide to a local council member or various board members in hopes of persuading them that the business will be good for the area.

"Lola ultimately won and I'm happy that she did:' Ferrari remarks. "It was a senseless fight because what Lola wanted to do was not violate the civility of the neighborhood. She wanted to continue doing what she was doing in Chelsea."

Patrick-Odeen now realizes her mistakes. "Hiring a lobbyist at the very onset would have been an important thing to do and would have given us perspective that we didn't have initially," she says.

"Understanding the politics in any neighborhood that you're going into is of critical importance to any business owner because at the end of the day it was the politicians that they had at their disposal that fought their fight. But once this ball started rolling and we were caught up in the court system, there was very little most people could do to help us. You have to let it play out."

Four weeks after Lola started live music, Sweeney says there have been no complaints to him. "Much to everybody's surprise, there's no loud horrible music coming from here," Patrick-Odeen says sarcastically. "There's no riffraff in the street and people can sleep at night. It's amazing."

Was it all worth it?

"We'll see," she ponders. When you think about the bottom line of your financials, we are a long way away from recognizing success. But I believe in our vision. I believe in this business. We have not compromised.... There's a spiritual component here, a feeling of family and home. I think financial success will come in time."
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Title Annotation:INVESTIGATIVE REPORT; Lola-Gayle Patrick-Odeen
Author:Carter, Kelly E.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
Words:3406
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