Noble Rey Brewing Company, the 8,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in the Design District, is the latest brewer to get a frustrating visit from the fire marshal. Like Peticolas and Cidercade before it, Noble Rey on Thursday was told to temporarily shut down its taproom because it wasn’t an approved use under its certificate of occupancy. The Dallas Morning News first reported the closures, saying that Noble Rey’s owner was down at City Hall, trying to work the whole thing out.
Head brewer Tommy Miller told me that the fire inspectors peeked in on their New Year’s Eve party and ducked out without saying much. They came back on Thursday around 8 p.m., an hour before close, and told the brewery to shut down the taproom after it closed its doors and head down to the city’s Building Inspection division to get a more appropriate certificate of occupancy. Miller also said he was issued a citation.
“To be blunt, it’s bullshit,” Miller says. “They’re coming in and doing this without any direction or oversight. They should come in and talk about it first and say, ‘These are the steps you need to take.’”
Seems rational enough — until you think about the bureaucracy behind the permitting process. The fire marshal enforces the rule of the building inspectors. If the fire marshal visits your location and the certificate of occupancy doesn’t match the use, then the fire marshal shuts you down and sends you to City Hall to apply for a new one that allows for the use. And the use may be unbeknownst to the building inspectors.
See, the building inspectors approve the permit based on the physical structure, not on the actual use of that structure. Fire inspectors check it out after the operation is up and running, but, under current city code, they do not have a say prior to the permit being issued. And so the building inspector, who may be blind to what a taproom is, may approve a permit for a building that does not account for its actual use. Then the fire marshal arrives and shuts it down.
“One of the things we’re seeing is that the use they applied for was brewing and for storage,” says Christopher Martinez, a deputy chief at Dallas Fire-Rescue and the city’s fire marshal. “In a lot of cases, there’s probably confusion.”
To the field inspectors, there is no gray. Either you’re operating as the city approved or you’re not. And if not, you may be required to upgrade the facility to include sprinklers, more exits, or an upgraded fire alarm system. That’s up to whatever the building inspectors determine to be an appropriate use, based on how many people are expected to be in the space and what it’s being used for. Another twist to this is that the permit code allowing small brewing operations is relatively new to building inspectors—microbrewery permits weren’t issued until 2012. So here’s that confusion that Martinez brought up: the idea that a brewery would operate a taproom — in other words, a bar — was beyond the expectations of the building inspectors.
“Those building inspection people don’t know that Michael Peticolas is like a rock star,” says Councilman Philip Kingston, the vice chair of the council’s public safety committee. “They don’t know that that taproom is going to be a really cool place to hang out. They’re thinking it’s 500 square feet of semi-finished-out office crap in front of a warehouse where people taste little thimbles of beer during the workday.”
And so the breweries think their brewing and storage permit would allow for a 3,000-square-foot taproom, because the building inspectors didn’t know any better — then the fire marshal shows up and finds a bar. Martinez, too, says the city isn’t targeting breweries, that end-of-year parties started raising eyebrows and attracting investigators. But the results remain—the taproom operations, which Miller says accounts for a significant amount of business at Noble Rey, are now paused.
Kingston said the Council wasn’t briefed on the investigations, and that wouldn’t be such an odd thing had it not been for last year’s mass closure of pop-up art spaces. But, as in that case, he says the city is working to tear down the silos between city departments that create the confusion that’s so frustrating to folks like Miller. There’s now a liaison between the fire marshal and the building inspector, for instance, so that the two have an open line of communication to discuss specific cases.
Kingston says the city has been sending out “multi-disciplinary sweeps” of code enforcement, building inspection, and the fire marshal to inspect buildings simultaneously, to be able to give the operator a corrective plan. He also insists this isn’t the fire marshal going after breweries. “I know people are saying they’re cracking down on beer, but, you know what, they’re not,” he says. “It’s just a bunch of new beer openings and you get inspected after you open. That’s how it works for every business.”
Peticolas opened its taproom about a year ago to the day. Same for Cidercade, which planted a whole bunch of arcade games in a large room separate from its brewing operations. Noble Rey’s taproom has been operating since July 2015, separated from its brewery by a firewall. They’re all now stuck between city departments. Which, at Noble Rey, means about eight employees are in limbo until this thing gets sorted out.
“We’re a business with lots of employees who are willing to work with the city, but there’s no discretion at all,” Miller says. “’You’re shut down. You figure it out.’”