Appeal rejected, Philly P’s likely to close

February 18, 2010

Philly Pizza and Grill can be closed by the city at any moment, following Tuesday’s Board of Zoning and Adjustment hearing which rejected the restaurant’s appeal to reinstate its certificate of occupancy. In its decision, the BZA upheld the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ move to revoke Philly Pizza’s certificate of occupancy on the grounds that it is zoned as a sit-down restaurant, but in fact is operating as a fast food establishment.

Under D.C. law, any establishment that has a drive through, requires customers to pay for food before it is consumed, or uses disposable tableware is considered a fast food establishment.

Philly Pizza owner Matt Kocak said that over the past four or five months, Philly Pizza has made changes to act more like a restaurant, such as adopting non-disposable silverware and renovating to create a more sit-down feel. He said he made these changes to appease neighbors, who complained about excessive noise and disturbances coming from Georgetown students who loitered outside on weekend nights.

Much of Tuesday’s hearing focused on the testimony of Terrell Hill, an investigator with the DCRA. Hill testified that he saw no one sit down and eat in the restaurant except on his last visit.

“This time we were surprised because there were actually two people eating, [in the restaurant],” Hill testified.

Hill also stated that the patrons were eating out of disposable containers, and paid for their food before eating it.

The hearing also featured testimony from several Georgetown residents and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Bill Starrels. One of the residents displayed photographs she had taken outside of Philly Pizza between 2:30 and 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning in early September. The pictures showed dozens of people standing around Philly Pizza eating pizza out of boxes.

Kocak and his lawyer, John Patrick Brown Jr., argued that it was not within the authority of Matt Le Grant, the Zoning Administrator of the District of Columbia, to revoke Philly Pizza’s certificate of occupancy because Hill’s eight hours of observation were not enough to fully determine fully if Philly Pizza is a fast food establishment or a sit-down restaurant. Brown also argued that the majority of patrons at Philly Pizza now dine in and use non-disposable tableware, which would mean the establishment fits none of the criteria for a fast food restaurant.

Ultimately, the board was unconvinced by Kocak’s arguments, rejecting Philly Pizza’s appeal to reinstate its certificate of occupancy unanimously.

Philly Pizza was still open the day after the hearing and Kocak said he plans on keeping Philly Pizza open for as long as he can. In the meantime, Kocak plans to close the doors of the restaurant at midnight every night, but continue deliveries past that time.

“We are not going to give up right away,” Kocak said.

Kocak said he was caught in the crossfire between neighbors and students and has been unjustly targeted. He pointed out that neighboring Quick Pita is still open even though it uses disposable plates and remains open late.

Georgetown resident Alex Meeraus, who attended the hearing and testified against Kocak, was pleased with the decision but had sympathy for Kocak.

“I was happy because I think it was the correct response,” Meeraus said. “I feel sorry for the guy though.”

Another resident, who asked not to be named, had mixed feelings when he heard about the decision.

“It’s kind of bad because I’m all about late night pizza joints, but it was pretty out of control,” he said.

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