Tisbury selectman takes shot at Cafe Moxie progress

The reconstruction of Cafe Moxie on Main Street in Vineyard Haven has been slow. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Tisbury selectman Jeff Kristal seized on the normally routine department report by building and zoning inspector Ken Barwick at last week’s selectmen’s meeting to lob harsh criticism at Café Moxie. Mr. Kristal accused the owner of foot-dragging in the reconstruction of the long vacant Main Street restaurant.

Mr. Kristal’s remarks prompted a sharp rebuttal from Mr. Barwick, who said work on the restaurant following a fire in July 2008 is moving forward.

Fire destroyed Café Moxie on July 4, 2008, only weeks after a complete interior renovation. The Bunch of Grapes bookstore next door was severely damaged.

At that time Paul Currier owned the restaurant and property. Mike Ryan, owner of Island Woodworks, joined Mr. Currier as an equal investor in the Café Moxie rebuilding effort in October 2008.

The bookstore was rebuilt and reopened the summer of 2009, almost a year to the day after the fire. Work at the Café Moxie site, however, was delayed several times, due to a drawn-out insurance claims process, town limitations on the construction schedule, and issues with NSTAR. Mr. Currier subsequently sold his remaining share in the restaurant to Mr. Ryan on November 3, 2010.

Over the past six months, Mr. Kristal made several critical remarks at previous selectmen’s meetings about Café Moxie’s prolonged reconstruction. Last week, however, his criticism expanded. He questioned the project’s legitimacy based on unattributed comments.

“I see Cafe Moxie opened up this morning,” Mr. Kristal said, sarcasm evident in his tone, after Mr. Barwick provided his departmental report at the selectmen’s April 24 meeting. There was a smattering of laughter. “No, I’m joking,” Mr. Kristal said.

He continued his train of thought.

“Some people have come to me saying that they think that they’re using it just as a woodshop, in that there’s no real activity going on,” Mr. Kristal said.

“Maybe they’re just doing cutting for upstairs, downstairs on the main floor,” he added. “I don’t know, but other people have been concerned that there’s been a lot of loading of stuff in and out and that it could be used just as a workspace rather than actually anything going on there.”

Selectman Tristan Israel, chairman, sat quietly. Outgoing selectman Geoghan Coogan was not present.

Mr. Barwick dismissed Mr. Kristal’s assessment.

“My understanding, Mr. Kristal, is that the property owner is actively pursuing to get that food service on the main floor up and running,” Mr. Barwick said. “When I was in the building last, they were trimming out the upper floor apartments and they were also trimming out the basement area where the food preparation will take place.”

“So it’s moving forward?” Mr. Kristal, an inn owner, questioned.

“As far as any other storage in that building for other projects that the property owner may be working on, I am not aware,” Mr. Barwick said.

“I just didn’t want it to be an active woodshop, and not being worked on as a restaurant and the housing units upstairs,” Mr. Kristal continued.

“Well, if you have an opportunity to go into the building and down into the basement, they are clearly moving forward to, I’m going to say, complete and assemble that kitchen for the purpose of food service,” Mr. Barwick said.

“Yeah, I read that news article two years ago,” Mr. Kristal retorted.

As evidence of the reconstruction’s progress, Mr. Barwick said that he and Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling recently received an application from Mr. Ryan to install a fire suppression system over the cooking equipment in the basement.

Not satisfied, Mr. Kristal asked Mr. Barwick to get a projected opening date from Mr. Ryan.

“I don’t think we have anything for beer and wine in front of us yet,” Mr. Kristal said. “They were hot and heavy about a beer and wine license and that’s a process, so I don’t know where they are.”

Mr. Barwick said he would get an update from Mr. Ryan and report back to town administrator John Bugbee.

On Monday, Mr. Ryan deferred questions from The Times to Nick Mosey, his assistant. Mr. Mosey said he had dropped off an application for a common victualler’s license for Café Moxie at Tisbury town hall that morning.

Mr. Mosey also took exception with Mr. Kristal’s remarks. Given Café Moxie’s ownership has changed and a public hearing is required for its new license, Mr. Mosey said Mr. Kristal’s remarks could be harmful, especially if they were mistaken as the board of selectmen’s official opinion, rather than his own.

Asked if Mr. Ryan will open Café Moxie this summer, Mr. Mosey said, “Oh God, yes. We want it open. He’s funding this from working.”

“Our intent is to get the restaurant going as soon as we can; then we’ll put in for a beer and wine license, since that process could take several months,” he added.

When The Times asked Mr. Kristal in a phone conversation Wednesday about what prompted his remarks, he said, “People have been approaching me, some business owners downtown, and asking what’s going on at Café Moxie.

“They see scrap wood and all this stuff coming in and going out, and they’re seeing very little going on as far as getting the place open,” Mr. Kristal added. “We’ve been waiting four years, and we’ve heard every excuse in the book. The town has bent over backwards.”

Mr. Kristal took exception with the notion that his remarks were harsh. “I don’t think it’s harsh criticism when I’m trying to promote business downtown,” he said.