Truckee’s Donner Lake Kitchen to shut doors for good due to ADA suit
TRUCKEE, Calif. — The exact moment is uncertain. But most likely, Kelley Money was busy operating the cash register, filling empty ketchup bottles, stacking menus or rushing hot plates of Huevos Rancheros — her signature dish — from the kitchen.When it happened, her husband, Bill — a friendly, large-statured man with a strong handshake and speckled gray mustache — could have been stocking the walk-in refrigerator with meat, or dumping the day’s garbage or meeting the arrival of the usual locals accustomed to Bill’s warm greetings and colorful stories.
It was a typical day for the couple who have operated Donner Lake Kitchen for the past 17 years without complaint. Yet, like most small business owners in town, they were oblivious to the van that rolled into their parking lot roughly two years ago, driven by a man peering out a window, observing, scanning, canvassing their building and lot for imperfections. Imperfections he found and jotted down.
The man taking notes was attorney Scott Johnson, heralded and denounced for his countless Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits in California, lawsuits requiring businesses to quickly meet the federal law’s building requirements or settle through payment.
For the Moneys, Johnson’s visit was the beginning of the end. The attorney’s notes that day would be distributed back to property owner Roger Gannam, via an equally subtle letter in June 2009 requesting compliance. It was a letter like many of Johnson’s, that was not answered quickly enough to halt an incoming ADA lawsuit.
Weighing attorney fees, Gannam decided it would be cheaper to settle, and he required the Moneys make the needed upgrades as he said he’d seen other tenants do in town. But for the Moneys — who understand the law, like any other type of absolute, is only absolute if it can be paid for — the price was too high.
“He said we have to bring this particular building up to compliance on our own dollar, and that would be huge,” said Bill, estimating the upgrades and permits could range from $20,000 to $60,000.The end result? Donner Lake Kitchen — located at 13710 Donner Pass Road, just across the street from the sparkling blue Sierra lake of the same moniker — will serve up its final meal Sunday, Feb. 27, before shutting down for good.
Resting himself on a chair near one of the diner’s windows on Monday afternoon, Bill sits with his arms folded as a hot plate of fries steams in front of him. Peter, his 11-year-old son, reaches sheepishly to sneak a few from the plate. Bill’s brow is furrowed as he explains he’s worried for his staff that will be unemployed at the end of the month — staff he said he considers family — and worried for his wife and three kids preparing to undertake the costly and laborsome process of moving everything into storage.
“It’s a bad time of year to get thrown out in the snow,” said Bill. “It’s brutal. We have a lot of long-time local people who’ve been in, and my wife Kelley has been crying with the customers for the last several weeks.
”Adding to the struggle, Bill said it will be difficult to move during the winter when finances are tight and the remaining funds from summer visitors are sparse. As is, he and Kelley will have to use money from their savings until they can find a new place to reopen, hopefully by June.
“I’m disappointed that it has affected us and it has affected us as greatly as it has affected anybody,” Bill said.
Yet, like many business owners who’ve been struggling with Johnson’s ADA lawsuits, Bill said it’s hard for him to lay blame, and if he did lay blame, where to place it: on Johnson for filing the lawsuit, on property owners for requiring tenants to pay for ADA upgrades, to the federal law that encourages the practices or at the Great Recession and its effect on businesses now unable to pay for retrofitting?
“Even though Johnson’s affected us, I think the guy is kind of looking out for his own (Johnson himself a paraplegic) and I can’t say that much bad about him,” Bill said. “He’s not that bad of a guy unless you ignore him.”
Though blame may be hard to place on so many faceless reasons, for Bill and Kelley, the effects of the closure are nothing but faces.
Proof can be found on every wall of the diner, each scattered with photos of friends and family, not to mention the numerous knickknacks of Truckee memorabilia.
As Kelley mops the floor and listens to her husband as he relates the story of the restaurant’s end, her eyes are wet with tears, and like her husband, she questions who or what is ultimately to blame.
“I was mad when I first heard the news and I didn’t think that we would have to leave,” Kelley said. “But, enough is enough, and we obviously can’t afford to stay.
”For Kelley the memories are palpable. From a truck outside the diner — his voice booming through a bullhorn — she said she remembers Bill proposing to her, shouting “Will you maarrrry me!” The diner was also where her water broke when she had their eldest son Max, 15, and where she’s continued to raise her other two children Peter and his sister Katie, both age 13.
Then, of course, there’s feeding the rest of the family.“We’ve been here a long time. The locals, they’ve supported us and become our family,” she said. “We’re really hoping we can find a place in Truckee where we can afford to stay and be assured this will never happen again.”
Gannam acknowledged there is no requirement in ADA law for tenants to pay for property upgrades. However, in light of tough economic times and seeing other property owners and tenants doing the same, he said he felt it wasn’t unreasonable.
“It surprised the hell out of me when (Bill and Kelley) didn’t want to put anything into it, but they’ve got their reasons,” Gannam said.
Gannam said he imagines starting in a new location and moving would be far more costly than paying the needed ADA upgrades at the Donner Lake venue, which he estimated would mainly involve improvements to the bathrooms.
“I’m sure it wasn’t going to be that costly,” he said.Gannam said he is already talking with a potential tenant interested in starting a restaurant at the Donner Lake building.
Despite challenges, Bill and his family remain upbeat.
“The thing we have in our favor is experience and we’ve been able to make our restaurant work,” Bill said. “So when we go to the bank (for a loan to start again) that will be a good sign.”