A clogged sewer line backed up into the basement of Tupelo Honey Cafe, a popular Asheville restaurant and tourist destination, causing thousands of dollars of damage and forcing the restaurant to remain closed for more than a week.
A 6-inch line clogged Friday night “and back-flowed into our basement” for about an hour beginning about 6:30 p.m., restaurant owner Steve Frabitore said on Tuesday. The gray water — an estimated 2,000 gallons of it — damaged everything from office space to stored inventory.
“It’s significant damage. It’s not a $20,000 or $30,000 issue. It’s going to be significantly higher,” Frabitore said, noting that sheet rock will have to be replaced, the basement floor will have to be resealed and all metal surfaces will have to be cleaned and sanitized to meet safety standards.
The cause of the clog? Grease build-up in the main line, said Ken Stines, assistant director of system services for the Metropolitan Sewerage District, which oversees the city’s sewer lines.
Restaurants dumping grease into the lines remains a significant problem for the maintenance of downtown sewer lines, Stines said. He wasn’t pointing a finger at any one restaurant, and Frabitore stressed that his restaurant follows the rules when it comes to dealing with grease. But Stines said that despite the fact that restaurants are required to maintain grease traps and have those traps inspected, the proper disposal of grease remains an issue.
“We really try to do a lot of public education and stress the disposal of grease in the trash and the cleaning of grease traps,” Stines said. In the coming weeks, MSD plans to contact all downtown restaurants and remind them of best practices when it comes to maintaining sewer lines, he said.
“The only way to stop the problem is to increase public awareness and get people to help us take care of the environment,” Stines said. “It’s a never-ending battle.”
Both Frabitore and Stines said they were working well together to get the restaurant re-opened as soon as possible. Stines said MSD workers used high-pressure hoses and de-greasers to clean the main sewer line. A crew also planned to install a back-flow preventer on the 2-inch line into the restaurant’s basement that overflowed.
Frabitore said insurance adjustors from both sides had been out to survey the situation. “There’s no pointing of fingers. Everybody has been terrific.”
Tupelo Honey plans to re-open on May 6, according to Frabitore, who said that he’s also doing whatever he can to support the restaurant’s 47 workers. He said he’s pledged to pay all his workers, including tipped employees, at least 60 percent of their wages for missed days. On Tuesday, restaurant managers passed out gift baskets to employees, he added. Some employees took the down time to do other maintenance, such as repainting metalwork encompassing the restaurant’s sidewalk seating, while giant fans blew inside.
“At the end of the day, everything’s going to be fine,” Frabitore said. “Things like this happen. When you have a strong managmeent team and a strong business, you just deal with the situation, you fix it and move on.”
Tupelo Honey Cafe specializes in haute Southern cuisine and has become a hot spot for locals looking for lunch and tourists seeking Sunday brunch since it opened in 2000. It’s won positive recognition from a host of publications, including the New York Times, Southern Living Magazine and The Food Network. Frabitore has owned the restaurant for about a year.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor