VENTNOR — Mike Einwechter stood behind the counter of Ventnor Coffee whipping up a latte for a customer while a couple relaxed on a set of armchairs nearby and a young man sat on a stool on the stage, strumming his guitar to an empty audience.
Einwechter and his wife, Christine Pagano, co-own the coffee shop, which opened in August on North Dorset Avenue. He said the scene transpiring around him is exactly what he envisioned and hoped for when he dreamed up his business — a funky cafe created in an old auto garage, set up like a community living room and promoting local artists.
But his dream recently hit a hurdle. Ventnor Coffee is being cited by the city’s Zoning Board for hosting live performances in a commercially zoned area of the city, which is prohibited.
Mayor Mike Bagnell said though he supports the business and the local artists who play there, the space as it is poses fire-safety concerns.
“They have standing-room-only events, and God forbid there’s a fire,” Bagnell said. “Believe me, I support them. No one loves music as much as I do. But they need to apply for a variance and make some changes first,” such as adding more parking, a sprinkler system and an emergency exit.
Einwechter said they can’t afford those changes, nor should they have to. He has hired a lawyer in hopes of proving his point.
“I want them to define their interpretation of a coffee shop, because as far as I’m concerned, live music is an integral part of the coffee shop experience. They go hand-in-hand. Bob Dylan was discovered in a coffee shop,” he said. “It’s a place where people can come hang out, watch music, read, talk. There’s no cover change. We’re not a bar. We’re a public living room.”
George Drakopoulos, owner of The Malelani Cafe, a similarly run coffee shop located in the city’s business district on Atlantic Avenue, which is in a mixed-use zone that allows live music, said he doesn’t think the situation is fair and hopes a compromise can be made.
“It’s disappointing that city politics are getting in the way of something good,” Drakopoulos said.
The issue will be discussed at a public Zoning Board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 19. Ventnor Coffee is rallying local support.
In the meantime, Einwechter said, the coffee shop will continue to host its live music performances, including an eight-week local bands competition held in partnership with the local radio station WZXL, starting Feb. 22.
“If the meeting doesn’t go in our favor, we’ll appeal it,” he said.
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