In 2002, tea-loving couple Toni and Robert Hodge decided to start their own business, called Shangri-la Tearoom and Vegetarian Restaurant. It was a success—they had hosts of loyal customers, more than 50 types of specialty teas, their own brand, and a cozy and inviting restaurant. Shangri-la ran for 11 years, turning from a simple restaurant to a community gathering spot for people to get in from the cold, listen to some local folk bands, and enjoy a hot cup of tea among friends and family.
Unfortunately, everything changed when their lease expired in August of 2017, and the landlord decided to double the rent. Despite their best efforts, Toni and Robert couldn’t afford the new rates, and were forced to temporarily close up shop. However, they soon located new space, only a few blocks away. The couple thought with some minor remodels, it could go from a disused disabilities services office to a tea shop and restaurant.
The city of Boise thought otherwise. Toni said their troubles started with the bathrooms. A city inspector told Toni their new building’s bathrooms weren’t up to code—the little tea shop, which would seat 35 people at maximum capacity, needed both of its restrooms to be code-conforming, handicap-accessible bathrooms. The really irksome part? Three years before, this old building had been a disabilities services office, whose clients had managed to use the unisex bathrooms without incident. But, though Toni tried to work with Boise’s Planning and Zoning Office, Boise officials refused to accept the pre-existing conditions or inspect the premises, insisting (simply by looking at the building plans), that one of the bathrooms needed a complete remodel to rearrange the sink, door, and toilet.
The other bathroom? The door opened an inch too close to the sink. The Hodges tried to ask for an exception. They cited the building’s age, as well as its previous tenant’s lack of issues. But it was not to be. The city refused to grandfather the bathrooms as they were, insisting that the Hodges not only pay for extensive remodels and various remodeling permits, but also for another plumbing inspection, all of which totaled more than $14,000: “over a third of our entire budget,” Toni stated. “We couldn’t afford that.”
Other issues with a required industrial grease trap (in a vegan kitchen), and a possible—and false—asbestos scare dragged the remodel process on longer and longer, until the Hodges could no longer afford it. “We started the permit process the first week of August,” Toni related. “We kept asking people, and we heard that it could be up to nine weeks to get all the necessary permits. And it was. I told people, I told them in the beginning, that we couldn’t survive nine weeks without work. And we couldn’t.”
Towards the end of their struggle, as the Hodges were running out of the funds they’d saved, Toni told me that the city started sending them suggestions as to where they could get loans. The Hodges refused. Toni explained, “We wanted to do it by ourselves! We had the money set aside, and it really shouldn’t have been that big of a deal!” In a defeated, angry voice, Toni told me that they simply couldn’t keep going. “We had to walk away. We lost everything—our kitchen equipment, our business, everything.”
Toni and her husband are not giving up on the tea business—their Divine Lotus brand now is sold online to restaurants and customers throughout the Treasure Valley. But having to rebuild your dream from scratch due to a brush with Boise’s Planning and Zoning Department is anathematic to the spirit of entrepreneurialism our state tries to foster. Toni’s final message to the city of Boise? “If you want a quality of life where it’s not all corporate, where small businesses have a chance, there needs to be change . . . The overwhelming feeling I got was that [the city] just wouldn’t help.”
Though lawmakers may have good intentions, even sensible-seeming regulations have unintended consequences and can easily hurt those who do and mean no harm. Stories like that of Toni and Robert Hodge are at once a signal flare and a plea for change that should not be ignored. It’s time to ensure that small business owners and entrepreneurs feel supported by—not attacked by—our cities.