Buffet proposal prompts odor control discussion in Richfield


Richfield’s odor control policy could be put to the test with a new restaurant’s plans to move into the space vacated by Old Country Buffet just over a year ago.

Lakes Buffet, a Chinese restaurant, has plans to replace Old Country Buffet at the corner of 66th Street and Nicollet Avenue, following the February 2016 closure of the long-standing restaurant. In a 6-1 tally, the Richfield Planning Commission voted to recommend a conditional-use permit and variances so Lakes Buffet buffet can move into the vacant space.

The recommendation means the restaurant is a city council approval away from obtaining a variance related to the city’s odor control policy.

That policy states that new restaurants using intensive cooking must install costly odor control equipment. The policy defines a “new restaurant” as one moving into a restaurant space that has been vacant for one year or less.

With the Old Country Buffet having been vacant for about 14 months, the rule requiring the odor control equipment would apply without the
benefit of a variance.

Granting the variance because the period of the restaurant’s vacancy is just over the one-year threshold – “To me that’s not a rationale for doing it,” Planning Commissioner Sue Rosenberg said before providing the lone dissenting vote on the variance. “I mean, a year is a year is a year. They should be under the same rule as a new restaurant. … They need to have the odor control equipment there. As I’ve said many times before, we are here to protect the neighborhoods.”

Although they ultimately voted for the variance, Planning Commissioners Bryan Pynn and Erin Vrieze Daniels wondered if the requirement to install odor control equipment, known as a “scrubber,” would be triggered by a complaint process anyway.

It would take two unique, non-anonymous complaints from neighbors to bring the issue to the desk of Community Development Director John Stark, who would make the determination regarding the equipment, according to Associate Planner Matt Brillhart.

“My concern,” Commission Chair Vrieze Daniels said, is “in two months, now they have to come back and put (odor control equipment) in, and we’ve put them out of business because of this.”

The city’s current odor control policy was formed in 2015, after Fireside Pizza announced plans to expand. The owner of that restaurant stated it would cost him $60,000 to install a “scrubber.”

As to the risk of having to make the costly addition, Planning Commissioner Gordon Vizecky was comfortable with that being a risk the new Chinese buffet is willing to take.

“My guess is the applicant’s taking the gamble that they can successfully not have excessive smell for the neighborhood, knowing that if they do, they would have an issue,” Vizecky said.

Nikki Bodurtha, a neighbor to the proposed restaurant, was concerned she would, indeed, have to issue a formal complaint. Bodurtha reported she can already smell other restaurants in the neighborhood.

“I’m just concerned this will be a little more odorous than what we would have expected,” Bodurtha said.

Since Richfield’s odor control policy went into effect in 2015, a “complaint situation” is yet to arise, Brillhart said.

Should complaints prompt city staff to address a restaurant odor problem, it would trigger a subjective evaluation process.
Commissioner Sean Hayford Oleary asked, “Do you just go out and sniff it?”

“Yes, essentially,” Brillhart replied. “ … There is not really a qualifiable way to do this.”

Old Country Buffet operated for decades using the same type of cooking equipment that is to be installed in the new restaurant, all while not employing the odor control device in question, he noted.

But now that an odor control ordinance is in place, lone dissenter Rosenberg wondered, “Well, then why have a code?”

Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.