Owners of a downtown Whitesburg restaurant who obtained a limited restaurant alcohol license almost fours years ago have announced plans to close the establishment.
Amelia Kirby, co- owner and general manager of Summit City Coffee LLC, notified patrons by email and via Facebook that the doors to Summit City will close August 1. Kirby owns the business with her husband, Joel Beverly. The couple live in Whitesburg.
“We have worked hard to find a path through the regulatory frameworks that are required of us, and despite our strongest efforts, this is the best choice available to us right now,” wrote Kirby. “I am really, deeply sad it has come to this. Summit City was a success beyond our wildest imaginings in every way that mattered. If there were requirements for percentages of delight produced or boundaries blurred or community built, we would be golden, but alas.”
Summit City, located at 208 Main Street, obtained its Kentucky Limited Restaurant License to sell alcohol on October 4, 2007, five months after voters in Whitesburg approved a referendum allowing the sale of alcohol in restaurants that seat at least 100 patrons and derive at least 70 percent of their income from the sale of food.
“We have really worked to be there and be within that regulation, but the ABC (Kentucky Department of Alcoholic Beveridge Control) determined that we had not success- fully achieved that,” Kirby said. “We’ve really looked at our options and right now closing down is the choice that we need to make. We have poured our heart and soul in this place. It is sad to see it go this way.”
An ABC audit conducted for a six-month period beginning April 1, 2010 found that Summit City’s foodto alcohol ratio was the opposite of what state law requires. According to the audit, which was completed December 10, 2010, Summit City’s alcoholic beverage sales totaled 71 percent of its revenue compared to 29 percent from the sale of food and non-alcoholic beverages.
On January 26, the Kentucky ABC board notified Summit City that the department had initiated an administrative proceeding seeking to revoke or suspend Summit City’s alcoholic beverage license for alleged violations of failure to maintain 70 percent food sales, failure to keep proper records, change in application facts, and causes for which licenses may be revoked.
An administrative hearing was originally scheduled for March, but was continued after Whitesburg Mayor James W. Craft filed a motion asking to reschedule the hearing. The hearing is now scheduled for 1 p.m. on June 29 in the Kentucky Alcoholic Beverage Control Board hearing room in Frankfort.
Kirby’s announcement that Summit City was closing was sent out electronically on June 16, the day before ABC Board Chairman and Hearing Officer Tony Dehner denied a motion for a settlement conference filed on behalf of Summit City by Frankfort attorney John B. Baughman. Dehner said the ABC board was “ unwilling to entertain settlement negotiations until (Summit City) submits documents showing that its food sales has drastically improved and provides proof that the licensee would soon maintain 70 percent food sales.”
The ABC’s complaint said Summit City is also in violation of the rules governing its limited restaurant alcohol license because it has “no bona fide kitchen facility.” The complaint notes that Summit City has only a closet where some food inventory is kept, a sandwich press used to warm and toast sandwiches, a food prep area behind the bar, a microwave oven, a toaster oven, a waffle iron and a dorm-sized refrigerator.
ABC officials first wrote about their concerns about Summit City’s lack of a proper restaurant kitchen at Summit City in a September 24, 2007 letter denying the restaurant’s initial application for a license to sell alcohol.
“We have … determined, in our sound discretion, that there is no realistic chance that you will receive 70 percent of your receipts from the sale of food when you will have no kitchen and your menu will consist mostly of cold cuts and sandwiches,” ABC Attorney/ Distilled Spirits Administrator Steven A. Edwards wrote in the letter denying the first application.
On October 4, 2007, Edwards and ABC Malt Beverage Administrator John C. Barton reversed their decision and granted the license to Summit City, noting that they were “convinced the applicant will abide by rules and will be an economic driver for the City of Whitesburg.”
Mayor says city will miss tax revenue
Summit City has been an “economic driver” for downtown Whitesburg, say Kirby and Mayor Craft.
Kirby estimates that more than 200 concerts representing many different genres of music have been held at Summit City since the first show was held in late July 2007. Many of the musical acts which have performed there have strong national followings and have attracted fans from outside the county to visit Whitesburg and eat in local restaurants, stay in local hotels, and buy gasoline and other necessities here.
“We put money into the economy,” said Kirby. “It’s money that stays here. It is local. It is not leaving. It is staying right here in Letcher County. That’s a significant amount that gets paid to the local tax base.”
Craft said Summit City has given people a reason to be in downtown Whitesburg after 5 p.m.
“Summit City drew a lot of people out of town into town,” said Craft. “ They took a building that had an internal fire and made a gorgeous building out of it. They spent a lot of money to beautify the place. I’m really disappointed that that’s happened to those people.”
In addition to providing jobs for seven people, Craft said the restaurant is responsible for a generating a large portion of the estimated $400,000 the City of Whitesburg has collected in taxes from establishments serving alcohol since limited sales ordinance took effect in 2007.
Four other restaurants also serve alcoholic beverages in Whitesburg, including Las Penas, The Courthouse Cafe, Kentucky River Grill, and Pizza Hut. Revenue from the alcohol tax has helped pay for construction of a pedestrian bridge connecting two city parking lots in downtown, buy Tasers for police officers as well as a new radio system and a new police cruiser, and pay for music entertainment at the Independence Day and Labor Day celebrations. A 2011 dump truck, a new grader/ scraper, and a saltbox were also paid for with revenue from the alcohol tax, as well as renovations to River Park including a new stage and a gazebo. Craft said special banners, Christmas decorations and anything else to beautify the town is paid for from the alcohol tax money.
Craft said if Summit City closed, the amount of money generated from the alcohol tax would be signifi- cantly less.
“It would sharply curtail what we are able to do,” said Craft.
Craft said he and the City of Whitesburg are in full support of Summit City and want it to remain open.
“Because I know what they mean to this city,” said Craft. “Summit City is recognized as a place far and wide to go and hear those entertainers. There is no other place in eastern Kentucky that does that.”
Craft said the City of Whitesburg was not involved in the audit.
“It has nothing to do with the City of Whitesburg and its regulations. It’s the state,” he said.
Kirby told The Mountain Eagle that helping to revitalize downtown Whitesburg has been important to her and Beverly.
“There‘s beautiful historical buildings in downtown Whitesburg and there used to be an era where people always came to town for entertainment and that was kind of what we were looking to bring back or at least to reflect back on,” she said.
Kirby said Whitesburg has a much different energy now then when she moved to town in 2000.
“There wasn’t anything going on downtown,” said Kirby. “Now you go downtown on any night there’s cars parked on the street and on the weekend nights it is hopping.”
Kirby said Summit City was “a dream that really evolved.”
“We started with a little idea and it just became something really special,” she said. “ Summit City might be officially our business, but it is a business that has been built out of the community — out of the people here in Whitesburg and Letcher County who made it their own.”
Kirby said people visit the establishment for different reasons, “whether it is coming in to have lunch or a business meeting, or to get a cappuccino or in the evening come in and have a glass of wine or hear a concert.”
“We sell food from 7:30 a.m. through all day long,” she said. “People come in for their morning coffee religiously. The kinds of events we did were special and unique to the town and shifted the sales balance.”
Kirby said the restaurant’s most popular food item has been its ham and cheese sandwiches.
“And we sold ‘boocoos’ of those,” she said. “We stay busy from 10:30 a.m. to way up into the afternoon of the lunch scene. People come in for dinner. It’s a restaurant. The percentages are hard.”
Kirby said the turkey pesto sandwich, and different salads and pastries made by local bakers sold well. The hummus platter was a surprising good seller.
“Over the first couple of years that we were open so many people would ask, ‘What is humus?’” she said. “We would give them a taste and people would get into it. Guys coming in on their lunch break getting a hummus sandwich. It was cool. You wouldn’t think it would have been popular.”
News upsets patrons
Kirby’s announcement of Summit City’s planned closing quickly generated responses from concerned patrons and others who don’t want to see the business close.
“Sad to see the doors close. Summit City breathed a lot of life back into Main Street, Whitesburg. Looking forward to what the future has to offer,” wrote Deane Quillen on Summit City’s Facebook page.
Peggy Caudill commented on the same Facebook page that “this is such a loss for our community.”
“I have always had to travel several miles to seek fun and entertainment,” wrote Caudill. “It was so refreshing when Summit opened in Whitesburg to know that here in our hometown was one of the best establishments around with such a diverse atmosphere for all ages. Whether it be art, poetry, music, etc, Summit had it to offer. A place to take your hat off and let your hair hang down.”
Michael Campbell described the closing as “tragically ridiculous.”
“Summit City is our favorite place to eat/hang out in Whitesburg,” Campbell wrote on Facebook. “My wife and I stop in there every time we visit Kentucky, and the thought of its closing is depressing. Good luck Summit City.”
As of Tuesday, more than 1,108 people said they “like” a “Save Summit City Lounge” page that was created by a patron to show support.
“Reading the posts on this page has confirmed what I’ve believed all along — that if there is a space for people to gather and share food and art and music and wine and coffee, the community will grow and blossom and that spark can lead to growth and development throughout the region,” Kirby posted on Facebook.
Kirby said she has huge gratitude for all of the support she and Beverly have been given for the years Summit City has been open and huge gratitude for people telling them what it means to them.
National touring acts often performed
Gravy, a band from Los Angeles featuring former Bang Tango guitarists Mark Knight and Mark Tremalgia, was the first to perform at Summit City.
“That was before we had alcohol,” said Kirby. “We were doing concerts for three months before. We were feeling our way at that point.”
Through the efforts of WMMT- FM programmer and booking agent Greg Napier of Hazard, Summit City was able to attract such national acts as Jason Isbell, Justin Townes Earle, the Felice Brothers, Sons of Bill, Halfway to Hazard, Chris Knight, Folk Soul Revival and Don Dokken among others.
“So many of the concerts have just been amazing and music I would have driven hours and hours to see happening right here in Whitesburg,” said Kirby. “I’ve been crying for the last three days just remembering everything.”
Lauderdale, a band from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, posted a message on Summit City’s Facebook page expressing concern about news of the closing.
“We’re really bummed out this morning. Just found out that one of our favorite venues in closing down due to stupid alcohol laws and percentages. Remind you of anywhere?” wrote Lauderdale.
“We have had artists in to play at Summit City that Rolling Stone magazine has named among its Top 10 bands to watch,” said Napier. “Fifteen bands played here that have played the Bonnaroo and Mountain Jam festivals. It’s been very interesting to watch artists I brought in such as Isbell, Earle, Cory Chisel, Dawn Landes, Dokken, Matt Abts of Gov’t Mule, The Whigs, Company of Thieves and Rose Hill Drive all appearing on late night TV via David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. It was awesome to see them performing to millions on TV then the next week play here to an intimate crowd.”
“Some of these bands appearing here were touring with bands such as The Who, Stone Temple Pilots, Kings of Leon, and The Black Crowes. You could drive into Whitesburg and see them live and be home before midnight,” Napier added.
Kirby said open mic night has been her favorite night of the week. “There have been a lot of people who the first time they have ever gotten on a stage was at Summit City and then they go on to really pursue it,” she said.
In addition to music, poetry, art, book signings and puppet shows have been a part of Summit City. Summit City has hosted 20 local and regional art shows. Kirby said she and Beverly helped start the idea of using art and creative activities as a way to do economic development to bring people into town.
“There’s all kinds of little stuff,” said Kirby. “We’re always trying to figure out ways to be able to do fundraisers and benefit concerts to give back.”
Kirby said she is going to pack the schedule until the place closes.
“In the next six weeks we are going to have a lot of stuff going on,” she said.
Will it reopen in some form?
Kirby said if Summit City reopens, concerts will be all-acoustic shows. However, there is no guarantee of Summit City opening back up as a coffee shop only.
“We want to, but whether it is going to be viable is definitely a big if — a hopeful if,” she said. “We’re going to really look closely at the economic financial situations and how we want to go forward and how we are able to go forward. You never know what the future holds.”