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  • Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette The Rev. Paul Spira accepts a fresh cup of coffee from Polly Quinn at the Peace Lutheran Church cafe and coffee­house. The church was granted a special-use variance to operate the cafe.

  • Peace Lutheran has a patio area for neighborhood residents to enjoy their drinks.

Saturday, May 27, 2017 1:00 am

Church cafe gets past red tape

Service to public ran afoul of health, zoning laws

ROSA SALTER RODRIGUEZ | The Journal Gazette

Coffee has been served in churches for ages. But when a small south-side Fort Wayne Lutheran congregation decided to extend coffee service to members of its neighborhood, the church ran into – well, a bit of hot water.

After about five years of planning and renovation, Peace Lutheran Church, 4900 S. Fairfield Ave., opened Sharing Peace Cafe in July in an under­used space in the basement of what had been its school building.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Paul Spira, said the idea was to have the coffee shop serve as a ministry to neighbors in several surrounding housing additions, including Woodhurst and Southwood Park. Neighbors would be encouraged to come inside the church, hang out, get refreshments and get to know its programs and people.

The congregation would charge for the regular and fancy coffee drinks but put the money back into the ministry. “It never was to be a profit center,” Spira said.

All was perking right along until April, when a county health department inspector showed up.

Shortly afterward, the church was told it was breaking the law. The cafe was a food establishment, not just a ministry, cafe organizers were told. Later, the church would find out the shop was being considered a “retail establishment” and needed a zoning variance.

Spira confessed he was shocked at first.

“We did everything we were supposed to – at least we thought we did,” the pastor said. 

The story has a happy ending – Peace was unanimously granted a special-use variance May 18 by the Fort Wayne Board of Zoning Appeals allowing the cafe to continue to operate.

But Spira and some members still wonder about the impact on other area congregations with similar coffee-selling venues and about how a ministry is defined.

Health department officials said the primary issue with Peace was how the coffee shop fared on what they call “a decision tree” recommended by state health officials for use with churches that serve food.  

The diagram asks whether a church is organized as a legal nonprofit entity and meets the basic attributes of a church. If so, the next question is if the food service is connected to a special event or if it's routine. If routine, health officials consider it a “food establishment” and consider whether it has “an extensive menu.”

Steve Schumm, director of food and consumer protection for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health, said in an email the cafe had just that, although it served only coffee, tea and flavored coffee, lattes and cappuccino, smoothies, hot chocolate and packaged and homemade pastries and snacks.

The inspection report indicates the department and cafe operators agreed the menu became “extensive” because it used “potentially hazardous ingredients” – milk products not in sealed single-serve containers, cut fruit and unpackaged homemade bakery products. That required treating the cafe as a “food establishment” requiring regulation.

That designation led to the need for a zoning variance. The church is in a residential zone, an allowed use, but the cafe, as a food establishment regularly open to the public, was a prohibited retail use, according to a report to the zoning hearing board by Department of Planning staff members.

That's even though cafeterias and snack bars if not used by the general public are considered an acceptable “accessory use” in churches and don't require a variance, according to that report.

Spira said the church wants to, and always intended to, comply with health and food safety regulations to avoid putting anyone at risk. The cafe stopped using the “potentially hazardous” items until allowed, he said, and he commended the health inspector for suggesting several ways the church kitchen could become a commercial kitchen. 

But, he added, it seemed like a lot of red tape for a simple idea to be neighborly. Coffee shop ministries in various forms exist in many large Fort Wayne and suburban churches, he said, and he wondered how they're regulated. 

Neighbors did not complain about the church's cafe, one of several ways the church ministers to the neighborhood, Spira said.

They like the shop, he said, because the nearest coffee seller is about a mile away, and places that serve food in southeast Fort Wayne are relatively rare.

That's one reason another of Peace's neighborhood outreaches – a congregation of food trucks before Thursday night worship services in the summertime – has proved popular, Spira said. 

Peace also serves the neighborhood with a preschool, a revamped children's playground and patio, fitness classes, and a theater program.

The church allows community groups and even a Bible study group from another church to meet in the cafe. The congregation has about $500,000 invested in improvements related to the cafe, Spira said – including a grant from The Lutheran Foundation, Fort Wayne, for the ministry innovation.

The Lutheran Foundation does not disclose grant amounts to congregations, but Spira said the grant was in excess of $100,000.

If the variance had not been granted, the pastor said, the congregation likely would not have been able to continue the shop for financial reasons.

Peace's governmental entanglements are not quite over – the church was required by the zoning board to either take down a banner-style outside sign or seek another variance, and that decision has yet to be made.

But the congregation would continue “reaching out to the neighborhood because that's what we are, a neighborhood church,” Spira said. “We believe faith starts with relationships, and we're looking to start relationships and build community.”

At the special-use hearing, Barb Hambrock of Fort Wayne said she was glad the church started the cafe and hoped it would be able to continue.

“I think it's a wonderful place,” she said. “It's great for families. It's a safe environment. … And they have great coffee and they have great lattes.”

rsalter@jg.net