A Downtown Lodi business has been told to begin operating as a “bona fide” restaurant or face disciplinary action, including the revocation of permits and business licenses.
The Lodi Planning Commission voted 6-0 on Wednesday night to give Blend Ultra Lounge six months to comply with its use permits, and provide community development department staff with receipts proving at least 50% of its sales comes from food, not alcohol.
Staff said the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has cited the business, located at 115 S. School St., Suite 113, for violation of one of its licenses that stipulates Blend must operate as a restaurant.
Agents with the ABC noted at the time that the business operates more like a nightclub, staff said.
The lounge’s liquor license was suspended 10 days, and once agents determined food was offered, it was reinstated.
Community development department staff had begun its own investigation last year after receiving complaints that Blend was operating as a nightclub and not a restaurant.
Planner Eric Norris provided examples of Blend’s “about us” section of its website, which details parties and dancing, DJs, bottle service and two dance floors.
Pictures on both pages depict dancing, large events, the bar, and a single shot of a menu, he added.
There is a menu on the Blend website, which offers three kinds of appetizers, one salad, two sandwiches, two sauteed dishes, five flatbread pizzas and dessert, Norris said.
However, he said the food offered on the menu does not constitute Blend as a restaurant.
The location that houses Blend was originally the Arch Brewing Co., Norris said, and was issued a permit for a brewery and restaurant in 2003 with the requirement that it be a “bona fide” eating place.
A permit to allow distilled spirits was issued in 2005, and the location became the Crush Kitchen in 2009.
When the location became Blend Ultra Lounge in 2015, a permit to allow a “live entertainment lounge” use was issued.
Norris said the previous permit requiring a restaurant be operated there was still in effect and Blend owner Michael Thorpe agreed to that stipulation.
“Based on staff’s analysis, the Blend Ultra Lounge is not operating as a restaurant,” Norris said. “We feel the record is quite clear, including their own representation of what they are, which is not a restaurant. It resembles a nightclub or bar to a much greater degree than it does a restaurant.”
Thorpe told the commission he was being misinterpreted, and said the use permit allows Blend to operate as a lounge for the after-hours crowd.
He added that dining facilities and a full kitchen do exist inside the the business, which serves dinner until 9 p.m., before switching to a late-night menu until 2 a.m.
“As far as the menu, we did start ambitiously with a full menu,” he said. “Over the years, we pivoted to include our crowd. If we’re offering something that isn’t selling, then we wouldn’t be open.”
Alexys Thorpe said a limited menu is offered because she and her husband do not like to waste food. As a result, the kitchen often runs out of food because customers are purchasing what’s available during regular hours. She added that the business lost a lot of employees to the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the lounge is often short-staffed.
“It’s been really hard to find a cook,” she said. “(Michael) would go back and cook, I’d go back and cook. There were times when it was really hard to make it bona fide. But we have minimal staff and we’ve just had a difficult time.”
Norris said the permit Michael Thorpe cited does not allow Blend to operate as a lounge. The exact wording, he said, was that the permit allows a “live entertainment lounge,” or live music, not a nightclub.
Michael Thorpe said he intends to operate as a restaurant, but claimed community department director John Della Monica balked at the idea of Blend being open after midnight.
“The concern about 2 a.m. (closing time) is because of the operating aspect of a lounge,” Della Monica said. “It isn’t a restaurant. It is a nightclub. And we currently do not have any restaurants in the city in operation that mention that level of activity that are open until 2 a.m.”
Some commissioners expressed concern that the Thorpes would not fully comply with the permits if they were given a certain amount of time to do so.
Commission vice chair Steve Hennecke said Blend looks like a nightclub when he sees descriptions such as “bottle service,” and added that most restaurants in town don’t turn into nightclubs when they close down at 9 p.m.
“If you come into compliance under the terms we give you, I might be tempted to give you time to do that,” he said. “But if you’re going to try to pull my leg to get more time out of this, it will backfire greatly.”
If the permits are revoked, the city would notify ABC, and no alcohol could be served, according to staff.
In addition, the city could revoke the Thorpes’ business license.
Staff will give the commission a compliance update at its July 19 meeting.
“Let’s give them a chance to work with John,” chair Mitch Slater said. “You guys need to get back together. You want to stay in business? You need to work with (Della Monica).”
Commissioner Crystal Hicks was absent from the meeting.