Dec. 19 2018 12:38 AM

City officials order eastside pizza shop to close

UPDATE: Toarmina's Pizza is open for business as of Thursday, Dec. 20


WEDNESDAY, Dec. 19 — The owners of a popular eastside pizza shop hope to be able to reopen their doors later this week following a months-long tussle with the city of Lansing over various health and safety concerns.


Toarmina’s Pizza, 2019 E. Michigan Ave., was ordered by building safety officials in October to close. Records indicate an “unsafe mechanical system” and ventilation issues, paired with a spat over a shared bathroom space, pushed city officials to declare the building as dangerous before demanding several repairs.


The city’s public development and planning director, Brian McGrain said concerns about gas pipelines and inadequate fire suppression — especially given Toarmina’s location in the middle of a city block — forced local officials to play it safe. “Were they critical issues? Absolutely. We had real concerns,” McGrain added.


Co-Owner Sean Zada said his staff could return to baking pizzas as early as Friday following weeks of various renovations. But that all depends on an upcoming visit from a city inspector. And Zada questioned whether city officials will ever let him and his staff return to business as usual.


“We’ve never had any issues in the past,” Zada explained. “They came in to do an inspection on a property next door and since we’re connected, they decided to come into our restaurant. They thought we had a couple of gas pipes moving through the exhaust fan. They weren’t gas pipes. They were exhaust pipes. We’ve addressed this.”


McGrain said officials plan to do a walk-through this week and could allow the business to reopen “shortly.”


“We don’t take shutting down a business lightly,” said McGrain, noting the severity of the health and safety concerns impacting the business left his office with no other choice.


An Oct. 11 visit to Halal Meats and Grocery, which is next door, led city officials to Toarmina’s on the same day, records indicate. And a slew of corrections notices have since been delivered to the business over the last few months. The shop mitigated some of the issues but was again asked to close later in November amid additional city code concerns.


Mechanical issues with grease ducts and ventilation were eventually replaced with concerns regarding work completed without permits, according to the continued corrections notices. Another issue surfaced regarding the inaccessibility of its shared restroom with the neighboring grocery market. Zada said it’s a work in progress.


A project filed earlier this month with the city charted plans for a new bathroom. Permits were also issued for a new gas line, a fresh hood for the pizza oven and a fire sprinkler, among other additions. Zada said most of the work has since been completed, and he hopes to be able to resume operations as usual by the weekend.


“These correction notices … half of them are not even valid because they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Zada said. “They just assumed these were problems. They just came up with all these crazy ideas. We’ve made sure that everything was done on their list before they came back, but apparently it wasn’t enough for them.”


Building owner David Mather said he was aware of the city’s notices but shifted sole responsibility to Toarmina’s to handle the repairs. He doesn’t know how the city will respond to the recent fixes, but both he and Zada said they had previously hoped the city would’ve been more accommodating to the business while repairs continued.


“We got three negative reviews on Google after we were shut down,” Zada added. “People are assuming there’s something wrong with our food. That’s not the case. I just don’t understand why the city wouldn’t give us a chance to fix these minor issues. It’s not like anything was life-threatening to customers or our employees.


“They just don’t know how much their decisions can impact people’s livelihoods. I have employees with kids who suddenly didn’t have a job. I lost three employees through all this and obviously the revenue to go with it.”


Records from recent health inspections charted a few issues earlier this year. Prepared ham in the refrigerator — sliced two days before the inspection — wasn’t marked with an expiration date. Some cutting boards were stained and badly worn. Some silverware was served mouth-side up. The floors also needed some repairs.


An inspector returned in October and spotted some other problems. A pest control company would need to help with the “rodent activity” if it couldn’t be managed in-house, records state. A grease trap was missing. The sliced ham was still undated. And employees from deliveries would make pizzas without washing their hands.


No enforcement action was taken against the business for those issues. The business has since corrected its missteps, Zada added. It was instead only the code compliance concerns that led the shop’s eventual closure. And — with fingers crossed — Zada hopes Toarmina’s can return to business well before the end of the year.


“The ball is really in their court to remedy some of these issues,” McGrain said, noting that he still stands behind the safety decision to close the business but also empathizes with the owners and hopes for the best.


“I think we’re at a place now where they’ll be able to open again shortly.”