Batesville Store: Another history chapter comes to a close
According to the current owners of the historic Batesville Store on Plank Road, state agents showed up unannounced on Friday, June 10 and gave them "no option except to close."
"Ironically, our success has proven to be our undoing," wrote co-owner Cid Scallet on the store's website. "They told us that it was decided that we do too much business to remain a country store."
The news spread fast across the web over the weekend, casting a heartless state bureaucracy as the villain who had killed a beloved store.
"There was absolutely no warning," says Scallet, who, with his wife Liza, has been operating the store since 2007 (the latest in a string of owners who have kept the store a going concern for more than 100 years). "And the timing was horrific. We suffered ten thousand to twelve thousand dollars in lost revenue. As a result, fifteen people have lost their jobs."
On Sunday, June 12, the Scallets quickly organized a 50 percent off sale on everything in the store (except alcohol) to recoup their losses, a sale they plan to continue throughout the week.
The store's Facebook fans were outraged, launched a Save the Batesville Store group, and Scallet says he received 400 emails expressing sympathy and support. The Newsplex, NBC29, and the Daily Progress all jumped on the story with headlines like "State shuts down Batesville Store" and "Customers fight to keep Batesville Store Open." Loyal customers contacted County officials and wrote letters to Governor Bob McDonnell and Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb asking them to intervene.
It's been no secret that the Scallets had transformed the sleepy little Batesville Store into a popular restaurant, gathering place, and music venue known for early evening concerts.
Indeed, according to Scallet, he was told by County officials that the Store was a "model" of how to save country stores. There was just one problem: as a "convenience store" under the watch of the state's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, they were only allowed to have 15 seats. For years now, says Scallet, they've had well over 40.
"They gave us two options," says Scallet, "either reduce the seating or get permitted as a restaurant."
Neither one, says Scallet, is economically feasible.
"If I went back to being a small country store, I'd be broke in a week," he says.
Making many of the necessary changes to bring the old building up to code as a restaurant would be too expensive, says Scallet, plus he claims the building's historic designation prohibits significant alterations.
"It's a real Catch-22," says Scallet, "and the folks from the Health Department knew that."
Scallet admits he and his wife knew about the seating issue, and he says they've had more than 15 seats since opening day.
"Everybody knew we were operating this way," he says, "including many city and county officials, who often sat in those seats."
So had the Agriculture Department been overlooking the violation of the 15-seat limit?
"The agriculture inspector was in here a month ago," declares Scallet. "And he didn't say anything."
So why shut it down now? Local health department officials say they had no choice.
"Someone complained about a food-borne illness after eating at the store," says Jeff McDaniel, local Environmental Health Manager for the Virginia Department of Health. "So we asked the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who are responsible for inspecting the store, to look into it."
While no major health violations were discovered, Health Department agents visiting on Friday discovered that the store appeared to be operating as a restaurant without a permit.
"So we told them they had to stop operating as a restaurant," says McDaniel. "If they wanted to continue operating as a restaurant, they would have to apply for a permit and operate like every other restaurant in the area."
Agriculture officials, however, tell a different story. Spokesperson Elaine Lidholm says their agent notified the health department when it was noticed that the store was operating with more than 15 seats, and that a "store employee" was told in April that the health department would be informed.
"We informed them that because seating now exceeds 15," says Lidholm, "they would fall under the inspection of the Health Department, not us."
"That's a bald lie," says Scallet. "They never mentioned anything to us about our seating."
However, Lidholm and McDaniel agree on one thing: neither agency "closed" the store down, only informed the owners that they couldn't operate as a restaurant anymore.
"We have no authority to close a convenience store," says McDaniel, noting that in addition to reducing the number of seats, the Scallets were presented with other options including limiting the amount of food and selling pre-packaged or catered foods.
For the Scallets, who appear to have made the store a success by fudging some rules (they even put price tags on some chairs so inspectors wouldn't count them), the edict for a store surviving financially from week to week was essentially a death sentence.
"Cid and Liza Scallet transformed it into a real community meeting place with homemade food, beer and wine by the glass, and live music," writes store fan Geoffrey Henson in an email. "It was spectacularly popular and was the heart of Batesville."
However, there would be no sympathy from the Health Department.
"If they wanted to re-open as a restaurant," McDaniel says, "the Health Department would work with them to make sure they were in compliance with state health codes, just as they do with all restaurant owners."
While Batesville Store fans hope there's a way to keep the iconic country store open, Scallet explains that he's had enough.
"We're just beat up and tired," says Scallet, citing battles he's had with government bureaucracies in the past, and the fact that he and his wife are approaching their 60s. "Even if there was a way to fight this, I doubt we would re-open."
According to property owner Norm Jenkins, who bought the store in 2004 and ran it for a time, an exit clause allows the Scallets to walk away from the lease.
"I was certainly surprised," says Jenkins. "But hopefully we'll find someone who wants to take over the store."
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