Almost two years ago, a couple of new signs were slapped onto the residential-looking stone building at the southwest corner of 39th Street and Wyoming. Something called the Rock Café was coming soon. Steak burgers were promised. The new establishment's logo (a red, white and blue electric guitar with a lightning bolt evoking the Grateful Dead's iconic Steal Your Face image) seemed to imply that music, probably hippie music, would be a component of its business model.
The Rock Café finally opened this past March. There are no steak burgers — owner Jeff Gerhardt was unable to acquire the necessary food permits to cook them — but there has been a tremendous amount of hippie music: live hippie music, played outside, many evenings a week. Last Monday, the Rock Café posted an event on its Facebook page celebrating the birthday of a man named Liquid Rick. The party, which featured a performance by a group called Famous Seamus and the Travelbongs, was scheduled to begin at 4:20 p.m.
This all sounds like fairly harmless stuff —until you take into account the issues of noise and loitering, which is why many businesses and residents in the area are less than mellow about their new neighbor.
"It's not a professional business they're running," says Murad Reshiq, the manager at KC Smoke Burgers across the street. "They have a very small menu and no indoor seating, so people just gather outside. They're not even eating. They're just hanging around. And the music — it's some of the worst music I have ever heard. And it's played very loud. It's just causing a lot of chaos in the area."
Reshiq's views are generally consistent with, though perhaps more impassioned than, those of other business owners on the block, many of whom didn't want to be quoted on the record. Kansas City's Environmental Health Division, which oversees noise-ordinance issues for establishments without liquor licenses, started fielding complaints about the Rock Café as early as April 4. Fliers with instructions on how to contact the city about the Rock Café's music were posted in shops along 39th Street. Councilwoman Jan Marcason, who represents the city's 4th District, quickly heard from her constituents.
"We were just getting e-mail after e-mail about this place," says Susan Borge, Marcason's assistant. "It was about the music, but there were also reports that the customers were buying alcohol across the street and bringing it over. Somebody who lives behind the Rock Café said people were going into the alley to pee and smoke dope."
Tex Houston, the district manager for the 39th Street Community Improvement District, tried to serve as a liaison between frustrated neighbors and the Rock Café. "They [the Rock Café] are part of the CID, so I represent them, too," Houston says. "They were very cooperative when I'd go over to talk to them. But it never changed anything. The next night, you could hear the music from three blocks away again."
After delivering both written and verbal warnings to the Rock Café about the volume of its music, the city's health division sent an inspector April 21 to investigate the noise levels. The business was found to be well over 60 decibels (the maximum), and a citation was issued. Gerhardt pleaded guilty in court, where he reportedly angered the judge by showing up in shorts and a tank top, and paid a $200 fine.
On Monday, June 25, after another loud, complaint-filled weekend, the health division revoked Rock Café's permit to sell food, effectively shutting the place down. "Please call our Mayor! ... The Rock Cafe is temporarily closed due to corruption in the Kansas City Missouri Health Department," went the Facebook post. By that Friday, it was back in business, after Gerhardt signed a statement agreeing to check sound levels on a noise meter every hour. How long the doors will stay open is hard to say, although Gerhardt has some theories.
"I've been jacked with right and left about my music and my menu," Gerhardt tells The Pitch. "They told me I can't serve this or that, that I don't have proper equipment for this or that. So I got new equipment. Then they told me my place isn't big enough for that equipment. When they couldn't find anything else wrong, they just came and took my permit. And I don't suspect this will be the last time I'm harassed."
Gerhardt also believes that KC Smoke Burgers is conspiring with the health division to put the Rock Café out of business. "I was at the Health Department last week at the same time as the Smoke Burgers guy, and there's a room full of us in the waiting area, and the inspector comes right out and shakes his hand like he's his boss or something," Gerhardt says. "The fact that we planned to serve burgers, and they're serving burgers — I think it's a political thing, that they're trying to put us under. I don't know if this [Health Department] guy has a financial interest in [KC Smoke Burgers] or what. But I intend to find out."
Borge has a less dramatic take. "Nobody is inventing new rules to get rid of the Rock Café," she says. "The city can only do what its ordinances allow. But we do have to enforce the laws we have. The noise level there is annoying to the people who live there and [who] have businesses close by. They feel that their businesses are damaged by that noise level. And also, you can't cook and sell food beyond what your permit allows. You can only do what your permit says you can do.
"I think the place looks fun," she continues. "I think it would be fun to sit in a big comfy chair outside and listen to music. But you've gotta follow the rules if you're gonna have a business in Kansas City."