Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut in Oxnard lost its permit to serve food on Dec. 22, but it was open and serving customers both inside and outside as recently as Jan. 20.
None of the restaurant’s neighbors at Channel Islands Harbor were serving diners on-site, following the state’s ban against indoor and outdoor dining service in regions with severely heightened COVID-19 spread, but several had signs in their windows protesting the state’s ban.
Defying the state’s orders has a cost: The county of Ventura and its health officer, Dr. Robert Levin, have filed 13 lawsuits against restaurants and gyms since Jan. 8, including eight new lawsuits filed Jan. 19. Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties have not had any similarly broad crackdown.
One lawsuit filed Jan. 19 was against Mrs. Olson’s; another was filed against Allison’s Country Café in Ventura, which, like Mrs. Olson’s, is one of Ventura County’s landmark breakfast spots.
The businesses are being sued under unfair competition laws, since Levin and the county say they are taking advantage of their competitors that are following public health rules.
County Counsel Michael Walker said the goal is to get the businesses being sued to follow the same rules everyone else is already following, not to shut them down permanently. In the case of Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut and other restaurants, the goal is to have restaurants close until their health permits have been restored and they are following all health orders.
Matt Brimigion, the second-generation owner of Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut, is questioning how essential the orders are. He said that while the restaurant staying open started as an attempt to help protect his business from being hurt even more by the pandemic, it’s not about putting people in seats and around tables anymore.
Brimigion says he started a collation to try to make sure a “way of life isn’t crushed” for small business owners and has more than 70 members, including small business owners from several industries. He said he’s also found support from community members, both virtually and in-person.
“The look on some peoples’ faces when they can actually sit down and eat is astonishing and it shouldn’t be that way,” Brimigion said. “The greatest part of your day shouldn’t be sitting down to eat.”
The restaurant has also faced pushback online from people who support the state’s health orders.
Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut closed during the early part of the shutdown and stayed closed for 60 days as it underwent a $100,000 renovation. The restaurant tried to do takeout, but Mrs. Olson’s was only doing about 10% of its usual business.
“In general, breakfast is not a popular to-go item,” Brimigion said.
The situation improved when the restaurant was able to feed people with outdoor and then indoor dining, but in December, with COVID cases skyrocketing, the state again forbade indoor or outdoor eating at restaurants. Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut has 22 employees, and Brimigion was worried about the financial consequences of losing so much business three weeks before Christmas.
“If (the county) is going to tell me to shut down, they’ll have to pay me to shut down,” Brimigion said.
Being shut down by the county comes with some additional consequences for Mrs. Olson’s Coffee Hut, though. Brimigion, who took over the restaurant from his father when he retired, said that because his restaurant is on county property at the harbor, the county is trying to get the restaurant’s landlord to evict it.
Walker said the county is not trying to evict the restaurant.
“We haven’t told our lessee to evict anyone,” Walker said, “but we have told our lessee to make sure it and any sub-lessees are compliant with health orders. It’s up to the lessee to make sure that happens.”
The county is, however, trying to get a temporary restraining order against the restaurant. It has used temporary restraining orders against other businesses that were holding indoor operations against local health orders, like the Fitness 19 and Anytime Fitness gyms the county sued over the summer, and found the orders were effective in getting business owners to come into compliance.