By Aaron Reiss
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By Dianna Wray
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In 2002, Yvette Palomo and Mari Kaye Lasewicz took their big entrepreneurial leap, pooling their life savings into the start-up of their own cafe. Lasewicz's black Labrador became the namesake of Annabelle's Diner, her mug dominating the interior motif.
Palomo was the veteran of the team, having worked her way up in 16 years from a Pappas hostess to author of its training manual. Lasewicz, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Wainwright Elementary, was a self-taught cook.
And in two years, they've beaten the heavy odds for restaurant failures and received some favorable reviews in the process. Customers are flowing into their small cafe at 905 Taft, the former location of the original Fox Diner.
However, Annabelle's is also attracting a steady stream of other visitors with no interest in their menu: city inspectors.
In May, representatives of the city's planning and development department arrived. They ordered Annabelle's to tear down its most distinctive feature: the outdoor deck, which held a third of its seating.
The next month, inspectors zeroed in on a storage shed, demanding that it be removed within ten days. Even more recently, the city was out to examine a retaining wall put up to keep the dirt uncovered by the deck demolition from turning the parking lot into a mud puddle. By the time inspectors left, the city had also red-tagged it as in noncompliance.
There's been a near-parade of personnel from the health department and city fire marshal's office. Inspectors who usually come around once a year have made more than ten trips to Annabelle's since it opened. Despite that, they've never found anything but minor infractions, such as a burned-out light bulb on an exit door.
Until recently, Palomo says, she didn't understand why her small cafe was drawing so much attention from regulators.
"I thought, 'Man, the city is kind of on me.' "
But the 55-year-old building continues to be in point-blank range of what Annabelle's operators say is a war with a nearby property owner, John Duwaji. And complaints to the city are part of the arsenal in his apparent siege on the cafe.
Annabelle's had yet to be envisioned when the problems over the Taft property started. Tom Williams opened his Fox Diner there in 1996. In a Houston Chronicle article four years later, he estimated that inspectors had been sicced on his cafe scores of times by mid-2000. That wasn't long before he relocated the Fox to larger quarters on South Shepherd.
The fights even led to an encounter between Duwaji and City Controller Annise Parker when she was still a city councilmember. "It was apparent that Mr. Duwaji was using resources of the city to harass the Fox Diner," says Parker, who discovered that the city had found virtually nothing wrong in more than 30 inspections.
The building housing the Taft restaurant is hardly unique, a modest structure of about 1,500 square feet that sits on a lot twice that size. It is valued on the tax rolls at $85,000.
However, Duwaji owns surrounding properties, and the block is within the increasingly hot real estate market in the Allen Parkway area just west of downtown. Construction of the Federal Reserve Bank began two blocks away last year.
The acquisition of Annabelle's would make for a prime development area along that block. The cafe owners say that harassing complaints to the city would be one way to pressure them to quit, leaving landlord Pat Cemino vulnerable to selling.
Duwaji has told reporters in the past that he hasn't tried to buy Annabelle's, and that his main concerns with the complaints was simply to ensure that he had adequate parking and access to his properties.
Cemino disputes those claims. When he heard about the cafe's problems in May, he immediately suspected Duwaji. "He is ruthless, and he is determined to get that property," says Cemino.
"He originally tried to buy it, but he knew after the way he treated us, we wouldn't sell to him," says Cemino. The land has been in Cemino's family for 60 years.
The landlord thought Duwaji had stopped his complaints after attorneys warned Duwaji in a 2000 letter to "cease and desist from harassing my clients and the operators of the Fox Diner."
Waiter Ronald Rex says Duwaji often tells employees and customers that they are not allowed to park on the public streets bordering his property adjacent to the cafe. Rex say he once left his truck near the cafe for two days, and Duwaji threatened to have it towed as an "abandoned" vehicle.
Palomo and Lasewicz, who have never drawn a paycheck from the diner, are trying to cope with the latest round of inspections and actions. Profits from the cafe are poured back into the operation, including $8,000 to redecorate the deck last year. They say that then, after the complaints, they had to pay $4,000 to have the deck removed and put up the retaining wall.
The owners are seeking a variance to enable their shed to remain temporarily; otherwise they will lose the storage space for their catering operations. They say the city's notice of violation on the retaining wall wrongly indicated that Annabelle's had no permit to rebuild the deck, so Palomo will again be spending much time on city permits and variances.
Reached by telephone, Duwaji warned a reporter that he was "in the process of suing" the Chronicle and Annise Parker. "You need to be careful about what you put in the paper," he said. "Be careful what sources you use before you do anything." He declined to comment on the record about the disputes or the allegations.
Palomo says that three months ago the situation was temporarily reversed. She heard the sound of jackhammers tearing up the nearby street. She says she called the police, who ordered workers to stop after they determined that Duwaji didn't have a permit. He was later able to get a permit for a large driveway, effectively taking four parking spaces from Annabelle's.
Cafe workers say they realize that city personnel are just trying to do their job, however cumbersome the inspections. Likewise, representatives from the city departments note that anyone can make an anonymous complaint, and that they have little discretion, even if they may suspect the complaint is groundless.
"We have to respond to complaints," explains HFD Chief Inspector Charles Key. "If we don't, then pretty soon you'll be doing a story about how fire marshals aren't doing their job."
Kathy Barton from the health department says that their five inspections of Annabelle's in two years do not represent a particularly high frequency. They are required to respond within 24 hours to any "food-borne" complaint, she says. Many complaints "appear to be driven by someone wanting to get rid of a business," she says. "It's not unusual."
Palomo says she'll endure the situation, however distracting. "I can't even concentrate on being creative because of parking, the deck and harassment," she says. "I don't have the time or money to keep him off my back, but he's not taking the restaurant."