By JACK WEATHERLY
“Absolutely 100 percent false.”
That was the response from the owner and manager of the Plaza Building to a statement by Tim Norman, who had just opened the latest restaurant in the “Sweetie Pie’s” chain – only to be told by building management that the crowd was creating a problem for those trying to enter the 12-story building and use the elevators.
Also, the Ridgeland-based Estes Group had no role in the shutdown, despite an earlier article in the Mississippi Business Journal erroneously stating that it is the manager of the building and had decided to make that decision.
The Estes Group only handles leasing for the owner/manager, said Rabin Michael, managing member of Capital Tower LLC in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Michael said that “we’re as perplexed as anyone as to the shutdown. It doesn’t make sense.”
“We never shut him down. In fact, we would want nothing more than to have throngs of people and more vitality in downtown,” Michael said.
The answer to the puzzling outcome of the effort to put in a restaurant may be as simple as a large portable smoker that was still parked in front of Sweetie Pie’s on Tuesday.
Norman said the unit can smoke 700 slabs of ribs at a time.
Norman said that the business had all of the permits in hand from the city and state needed when it opened the business, but that “management” of the building decided to shut down operations.
Esther Ainsworth, administrator of zoning for the city, said on Tuesday that the smoker is not in compliance with municipal code, plus there are “aesthetic concerns.”
John Gomez, interim president of Downtown Jackson Partners, a business improvement district, told the Mississippi Business Journal Tuesday that no one representing the restaurant asked the city for permission to use the smoker at that location.
City Fire Marshal Elliott told the Journal that he visited the restaurant Friday morning and told the restaurant staff that a door offering access to Amite was locked and needed to be unlocked.
Owners of two other restaurants in the Plaza likewise said they welcomed the soul-food eatery, which would help draw customers. Jon Woodward, owner of Keifer’s, said, “We want to work with them and help downtown.” Michael Larkin, owner of Basil’s said that Sweetie Pie’s would “bring traffic to the Congress Street corridor.”
Michael said: “We were very careful in who were picking for this prime location in downtown.”
Norman said Friday that the managers of the building shut down operations.
No one at Capital Tower headquarters – or at the building itself, as suggested by restaurant manager Perry Herndon — issued such a command, Michael said.
Rusty Queen, who is in charge of maintenance at the building, said Monday night that he assisted Norman in the setup of the restaurant, painted for free, helped him hang the television and met Norman’s mother, Robbie Montgomery, who thanked him for his extra help.
“I was getting excited about” the restaurant opening, Queen said in a telephone interview Monday night.
The restaurant was not open on Tuesday at lunchtime.
The ground-floor space has been vacant for nearly four years since La Finestra, an Italian cuisine restaurant, closed.
Capital Tower has invested million of dollars in the skyscraper in the past few years and wants to make that investment pay off, Michael said.
Michael said the company signed a multi-year lease with St. Louis-based Sweetie Pie’s a year ago. And there is space for expansion on that ground-floor site on the northwest corner of the building at the intersection of Amite and Congress streets.
An effort to reach Norman on Monday on his cell phone was unsuccessful, as the voicemail box was full.
Perry Herndon, restaurant manager, said that he was to meet with Norman Monday night about whether to open Tuesday. It was not open for lunch on Tuesday.
The chain started in St. Louis, expanded to Houston, failed in an attempt to open on Beale Street and another location in Memphis and has worked toward an opening in Jackson for two years.
Friday afternoon, Norman greeted cruising motorists on Congress Street, telling them that the restaurant was no longer open.
Attempts to reach someone with the Estes Group and Capital Tower on Friday were not successful. A call to the mayor on Friday was not returned.
Norman said that “we were open for about 20 minutes” Friday morning before the shutdown.
He said that Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city would be trying to find a more-suitable place, perhaps in the Farish Street Historic District.
“I love this location,” Norman said.
Norman said he has hired 20 people.
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