A Hard Shot to the Ribs

What's a guy gotta do to fire up some barbecue in this town?
For the Reverend William Harris, who runs the Gethsemane Pentecostal Temple at the corner of 26th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, the answer isn't easy.

For years the reverend has been cooking up ribs in five large pits--in this case, big converted oil drums--and selling them to his congregation and passersby while holding rummage sales on the side of the street. Harris usually holds these cookouts on Saturdays during the warm-weather months, and although they raise a lot of money, they are also crowded and noisy and produce a lot of smoke.

Just behind the church is the heart of Park Hill, home to block after block of well-kept brick bungalows, and many of the families and professionals who live there are fed up. At the end of March, several of them met to discuss ways to douse the reverend's barbecues. Brian Fun, who lives behind the church, drew up the following neighbors' bill of rights:

* "We should be allowed to open the windows of our homes on Saturdays without smoke drifting in."

* "We should be able to hang our laundry outside to dry without having to rewash it because it smells like bar-be-que smoke."

* "We should be able to park in front of our homes and drive down our streets without having to wait behind an illegally parked car who has stopped to buy bar-be-que."

Park Hill resident Mary Sylvester, an attorney, is taking on the cause pro bono. In an April 5 letter to Mayor Wellington Webb, the former head of the city's Department of Excise and Licenses ticked off more than a dozen ordinances that Harris has supposedly violated. They range from the straightforward Denver Revised Municipal Code 23-69, which requires food peddlers to be licensed, to the more extreme DRMC 38-97, which states that it's unlawful to cause the emission of obnoxious fumes that may cause "injury, discomfort or prejudice" to any person. The ordinance falls under the heading "Use of Stench Bombs."

One of the neighbors is reportedly an asthmatic who has to leave his home whenever the barbecue pits are fired up. According to neighbors, Harris is even in violation of DRMC 49-578.4(3), which states that even properly licensed sidewalk sales can be held only four times a year. And Harris's sales, according to Sylvester, aren't properly licensed, either (DRMC 32-88).

The neighbors don't think they're being unreasonable.
"We've been here for years, and we don't want to stand that kind of business," says Alta Roper. "You wouldn't go out to Hilltop and find that kind of thing going on. These churches think they can do a lot, and they can. But when they become a business, that's the problem."

Their harping has paid off.
Last month, Denver's Department of Environmental Health cited Harris for operating as a food-service establishment without a license. A hearing in Denver County Court has been set for April 29. It's possible he could be fined up to $999 or spend a year in jail. "I would love to argue that he should," Sylvester says with a laugh. But she doesn't think it's likely.

Yet, in an irony that may be hard for neighbors to swallow, the law that required the church to have a license has just been cleared. For good. The new ordinance, which took effect April 1, makes Denver-based nonprofits and charitable organizations exempt from regulation and licensing if they prepare and sell food. Though such organizations are prohibited from operating more than 52 days a year--or once a week--they do not need to meet any safety standards.

The point of the ordinance is to encourage nonprofits to raise funds. "The General Assembly recognized a difference between the normal food-service industry and nonprofits that occasionally do fundraisers," says Jim Austin, the director of the city's public-health inspection division.

He says concerns about safety prevented Denver from adopting the state law sooner. But now? "We took a hard look at our nonprofits, talked to local health departments up and down the Front Range," he says. "There's been no outbreaks of illness due to food service by nonprofit, charitable organizations."

So why did Austin's division issue Harris a citation in March when it knew his activities would become legal in April?

"This has been an ongoing and intermittent thing for years," Austin says. "We believed it deserved our attention."

Brian Fun puts that "ongoing and intermittent thing" as beginning around seven years ago, when he says the church "ripped up a tree-filled lot and put in a parking lot. When they built an annex [to the church], neighbors were blocked from getting in and out of their garages. That's when the fight began."

Several years ago Harris agreed to landscape the right-of-way between the sidewalk and the street on Colorado and 26th, but today only a few trees stand in an area otherwise consisting solely of concrete.

One of the first complaints about the reverend's cookouts was in 1992, when a neighbor told the city health department about a "man cooking outside every Saturday (6:30 a.m.-5 p.m.) and selling food. Also, when he is finished he is hosing and dumping cooking waste into the sewer."

Harris was cited at that time for failing to have a valid license for selling food to the public, and in August 1993, a city health specialist wrote to Harris confirming his decision "not to cook and serve barbecue at Gethsemane Church for the balance of the year."

Things simmered down for a few years.
Then, about a mile away, Harris turned the barbecue grills back on, this time as a business rather than a church fundraiser. In December 1997, Lester LaForce rented his storefront at 2200 Kearney Street to Harris, who planned to open a rib shop there. Harris put down a $1,000 deposit to rent the place through the end of 1998. Though LaForce had written into the contract a clause that required Harris to pay rent all year, even if he left early, Harris removed the clause before he signed.

The first day he went to work, Harris fired up seven pits at once, says Jesse Scott, who owns Park Hill Barbers a few doors away. LaForce says his other tenants called to complain that smoke from the pits was climbing into their swamp coolers. "It's just charcoal and grease," LaForce says. "He's just doing this in steel drums."

So Harris set up shop a block away, on the right-of-way next to Tim Hutchings's Elite Automotive Service at the corner of 23rd and Kearney. Hutchings says he never had a problem with the pits.

The city eventually caught wind of the enterprise. Greg McKnight, at that time restaurant inspector with the health department, says he gave Harris a verbal cease-and-desist order. Harris complied and returned to 22nd and Kearney. Another order. Another move.

Harris thought the orders were related to his exact location, but McKnight says they were issued because Harris was cooking on equipment that didn't meet code. "He's very compliant, as soon as he understands," McKnight says. "He's a very nice gentleman."

It seems Harris was slow to understand, however, because later that summer, McKnight issued him another order--this time for cooking ribs he planned to sell near his east Denver home. Once again, complaining neighbors set the city into action. McKnight had to stake out the street before he finally caught the billowing smoke of the barbecue pits.

By fall of last year, Harris had moved out of the Kearney storefront, and when LaForce didn't refund his deposit--because Harris wouldn't pay the remaining three months' rent--Harris sued him for $3,000 and won.

LaForce is still angry. "I never dealt with a businessman who attempted to crook me. I'd like to see him burn."

Since then, the cookouts have returned to the church, where they are now legal. Harris spoke briefly with Westword, saying he ran three or four events this year, was perfectly in his rights and didn't plan to do anymore.

Some neighbors describe him as secretive and distrustful. But his paranoia may make sense, because almost everyone nearby is out to get him. "I think it's terrible," Alta Roper says. "The smoke from five big drums burning all day? It's terrible. How do you repeal an ordinance? That's what I want to know.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
T.R. Witcher

Latest Stories