Let them eat falafel

Almost two months after receiving an eviction notice, the Ali Baba restaurant is still serving up assorted Middle Eastern dishes at its shoebox-size site in the Grove Arcade. The restaurant’s owners aren’t taking the order lying down. They’ve filed a lawsuit charging the arcade’s management with breach of the 10-year lease. And on Sept. 15, co-owner Amro Ali delivered a petition to Mayor Terry Bellamy signed by “almost 1,500 supporters,” he reported, adding, “Fortunately, we have the support of the people and the media in this town.” Other City Council members received copies of the petition.

Should they stay or go?: Amro Ali (left) and his father, Fahti Ali, maintain that their restaurant isn’t in violation of of its Grove Arcade lease and are rebuffing efforts to evict Ali Baba. Photo By Jonathan Welch

At issue is whether the Ali family, which owns the popular eatery, is cooking in an unvented kitchen. The owners were ordered to vacate by Aug. 8, and the executive board of the Grove Arcade Public Market Foundation, which manages the facility, has refused to accept rent payments since then.

In response, the Alis retained Asheville attorney William Loose, who is holding the restaurateurs’ rent payments in escrow pending resolution of the suit.

In an Aug. 6 e-mail to all the building’s tenants, Executive Director Ruth T. Summers explained: “As landlords for a mixed-use facility, it is our primary concern to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our residential and business tenants. Because of potential fire hazards from cooking in a nonventilated space, if an unsafe or potentially hazardous condition arises which is in violation of a lease, we take this action seriously and will do what is necessary under our power to remedy the situation.”

The two parties, wrote Summers, “have agreed on a manner to expeditiously resolve the matter through legal process in state court without an eviction.” On the advice of her board’s attorney, Douglas Tate, Summers declined to comment further on the legal situation. But Tate explained that the two attorneys have agreed to share all of their information, in order to move the suit through the discovery phase as quickly as possible. “We expect to file an answer to their suit early next week and hope to get it on the court calendar before the end of the year,” he said.

The lease agreement was signed in 2002, and the Alis began to pay rent the next year, although they didn’t open for business until 2005. The lease specifically forbids cooking without a written letter of consent from the Arcade Board. No such letter was ever issued.

But while it might seem obvious that a restaurant that serves hot meals “cooks” food, this spat—like many another legal battle—may hinge on semantics. The food served at Ali Baba consists of a buffet that typically includes rice, chickpeas, eggplant, beets, stuffed peppers and yellow squash, and other Middle Eastern fare accompanied an entree (formerly chicken kebabs, but steamed chicken has recently been substituted).

After reading an article in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Building Safety Director Robert Griffin became concerned “that processes not meeting the building codes could be occurring,” he explained in an Aug. 27 letter to Summers and the Alis that summarized the results of a city inspection. According to the letter, “Staff consisting of a Commercial Permit Facilitator, Commercial Branch Supervisor, Assistant Department Director, a Deputy Fire Marshall and a Code Enforcement Officer specializing in the Plumbing and Mechanical Codes visited the site to conduct their inspections.” Griffin added, “At the time they were present, no operation or the odor would directly violate the Building Codes.”

The Alis feel that the inspection vindicated them. “We don’t cook, according to the state code,” Fahti Ali told Xpress.

But Tate maintains that “Griffin’s letter represents a snapshot of what the inspectors saw that day, ‘at the time they were present.’”

The code spells out a list of appliances required to have “a local exhaust-ventilation system” to eliminate “grease vapors, steam, fumes, smoke or odors.” The list includes “deep-fat fryers, upright broilers, griddles, broilers, fry grills, steam-jacketed kettles, hot-top ranges, charbroilers, ovens, barbecues, rotisseries and similar appliances.”

But according to Amro Ali, “We use a steamer and a convection oven,” which the code does not explicitly mention. It may be up to a judge to sort out whether a convection oven is “similar” to those listed in the code, and whether the cooking methods city inspectors observed are the only ones the Alis have used during their tenancy.

Other arcade business owners contacted by Xpress declined to comment on the situation. “We tenants are really not involved in administrative decisions, so there’s no reason to stake out a position,” said one. More than one tenant thought the matter had already been resolved in the restaurant’s favor.

In the meantime, Ali Baba remains open for business.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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