small businesses

Tent Trouble: Business Owner Says He'll Continue to Serve Customers Outdoors Despite Fire Code Violations

City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department steps up inspections of temporary outdoor dining areas

NBC Universal, Inc.

The owner of a small restaurant in Scripps Poway Parkway says he will remain defiant and continue to serve customers in a temporary tent set up outside of his business, despite being issued violation notices by the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.

Drew Hoffos, 40, owns Nutmeg Bakery & Café. He says he's served customers safely in a large outdoor tent for the last nine months, without any problems or notice of infractions.

But on February 25, he was issued two notices of violation after an inspection by deputy fire marshals.

“The idea of putting customers or our employees in danger, it’s ridiculous. We would never do that,” said Hoffos.

Hoffos was issued the first violation for having a tent larger than 400 square feet. His current tent is 600 square feet. He says he was denied a permit to operate the larger tent, because of the second violation, which requires the tent to be flame resistant. He says the required changes would cost him thousands of dollars.

“We can’t survive. We don’t have a huge nest egg just sitting around for a pandemic. It’s not something we planned for. Of course, we want to be in compliance and keep everyone safe, but this is such a ticky-tacky violation. There’s no risk here,” said Hoffos.

In February, SDFD began to step up inspections of outdoor dining areas set up by many restaurants as a way to offset restrictions on indoor dining.

According to a department spokesperson, fire code issues didn’t become prevalent until the weather turned cold, and restaurants started using heaters inside temporary tents.

Hoffos doesn’t have heaters inside his tent.

“We’re outdoors, there’s no walls. If this thing were to catch on fire, you could walk in any direction, and you would be safe. There’s just no risk, and so it’s hard to reconcile,” said Hoffos.

The Fire Marshal is making it clear, safety is the number one priority. The department is focused on an education campaign and is offering reinspections free of charge.

Hoffos, who co-owns his business with his wife and mother-in-law, also has a similar bakery and café in Sabre Springs. He opened the Scripps Poway Parkway location three months after the start of the pandemic. The temporary tents have been a lifeline for many struggling businesses.

“Since the shutdown, we’ve seen our business drop 80% right when it started, and we’ve been clawing back a few percentage points a month ever since,” said Hoffos.

Hoffos says he’s frustrated with the notices of violation after operating safely for nine months. He’s choosing to speak out in an effort to emphasize the struggles of small business owners.

He understands the risks of operating in defiance.

“Hopefully the wheels will turn slowly enough that by the time the enforcement has any teeth, we’ll be over this thing and we won’t need the tent anymore. That’s my hope. I really don’t have a backup plan. This is it, we have to keep moving forward,” said Hoffos.

The fire department says inspectors will work with local businesses to achieve compliance. But cases for non-compliant business owners could eventually be referred to the City Attorney’s office for review.

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