It’s a serious matter with a silly nickname that’s caused one would-be small business owner to lose a lot of sleep. But with the damage done, she’s hoping others can now learn from her expensive lesson.
Driving the news: Claire Rogers should be serving coffee and cuddling kittens at the Coachella Valley’s first-ever cat café, Frisky Business. Instead, she’s watching a plumber install a 100-gallon grease trap in the floor of the space she’s leasing in Rimrock Plaza, around the corner from Von’s grocery.
- She’s nicknamed the contraption “Grease Witherspoon.” But the cost to install it — $26,000 — is no laughing matter. The installation could not have come at a worse time, as she’s already $200,000 into the project with no opening date announced.
- “I’ve already spent all of my savings,” Rogers said during a tour of the space that will soon be her cafe. “I’m not allowed to work here. My Canadian visa is based on investing in this country, and this is my investment.”
At issue is a requirement from the city of Palm Springs that businesses preparing food and some beverages have a grease trap in place to prevent FOG (Fats, Oils, and Greases) from reaching the city sewer. That’s where the confusion came in for Rogers, who has been lobbying unsuccessfully for a waiver on the rule since June.
- All food served on-site at the café will come pre-packaged from other local businesses, and it could be decades before milk used while making drinks in her single espresso machine generates enough FOG to require emptying the trap.
But wait: The fact many existing restaurants and coffee shops in the city are not required to have the grease traps because they opened before stricter regulations went into place in 2020 is adding to the frustration.
- “(S)everal businesses and coffee shops have been given Grease Trap Interceptor waivers, which have been shown to me,” Rogers wrote in an email exchange with building officials, elected leaders, and others. “Indeed, I have even been given tours of kitchens and coffee shops in existing businesses that are producing hot food, grease, and oils, all of which do not have grease traps.”
The other side: City officials on the email thread with Rogers acknowledged the requirement is burdensome. Still, they appear to be digging in. On Tuesday, Rogers received what may be the final word on the matter.
- “What we are finding is that larger chains and the architects who represent them are aware of the change in the International Business Code and prepare accordingly for the costs of grease interceptors,” a senior city staff member wrote, “while smaller businesses without adequate design professional support struggle with code compliance issues.”
Moving forward: Rogers first started planning for the business in September 2021 and was eying a May 2022 opening before coming up against the permitting process at City Hall. She now hopes to open next month. Realizing she was fighting a losing battle and hoping to keep the opening on track, she reluctantly asked her plumber to install “Grease Witherspoon” last week.
- “I’m already going to have to spend the 26 grand,” she said. “But maybe I can help somebody in the future. The city genuinely does not understand when their policies impact people.”
Yes, but: In the email exchange, a city official reported that other small business owners had voiced concerns similar to those of Rogers. They also acknowledged work needs to be done to put clearer rules in place.
- “The city does not currently have guidelines as to the amounts of FOG allowed to drain for businesses with low levels that drain into the city sewer,” one building official wrote. “The code simply states that they are required.”
- Added another: “The waiver process and criteria is not currently codified; I’ve asked (staff) to address that as we prepare to adopt the upcoming update to the International Building Code in early 2023.”