Ownership issue stalls approval

By Ekaterina Pesheva
Southwest City Journal
June 4, 2003
Page A1 and A5

Revelations during a liquor license hearing Monday for restaurant in Dogtown raised many an eyebrow as well as the suspicions St. Louis City Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg.

Business owner Rita Byrnes of Franklin County wants to open a restaurant called O'Byrnes Grille & Pub, 6335 Clayton Ave., at the former Extra Innings' location in the heart of Dogtown.

Byrnes, who is listed as the sole owner of the establishment on her liquor license application, told Kraiberg she would run a not-for-profit bar/restaurant as part of a charitable organization called Vikings U.S.A. Byrnes said she invested about $60,000 in renovations. At least half the money, however, came from Todd Hutchins, whom Byrnes described as the restaurant's executive chef and manager. Hutchins also installed some of his own equipment in the restaurant, Byrnes said.

"You are listed as the 100-per-cent stockholder on the application; however, it seems to me that (Hutchins) has financial interest," Kraiberg told Byrnes.

A group of residents who oppose the liquor license told Kraiberg that Rita Byrnes' husband, Robert, on several occasions had described himself as co-owner of the restaurant along with his wife and Hutchins.

Complicating the question of ownership further, Robert Byrnes told Kraiberg he helped secure the other half of the $60,000 investment through a corporation called Tri Enterprises, which is partly run by Hutchins.

Kraiberg told the Byrnes that both Hutchins' and Robert Byrnes' names had to appear on the application if they were running the business and paying to open it.

"But my name is on it," Rita Byrnes insisted.

"It doesn't matter whose name it is under," Kraiberg quipped. "You can put it under King George's name, but if Tony Soprano is running the business that doesn't matter."

Robert Byrnes once ran two establishments in Franklin County. His track record as a restaurant owner, however, is far from impeccable, it was revealed during the hearing.

Among other things, Byrnes served a two-year probation for promoting obscenity at one of his a "juice bar."

In early 2001, Byrnes was charged with nine counts of class A misdemeanor, ranging from operating without a conditional use permit to promoting obscenity by having nude dancing in one of his bars. Byrnes pleaded guilty to two of the charges.

According to records obtained by the protestors, Todd A. Hutchins served three years for sexually abusing a minor in 1992. Hutchins did not attend the hearing.

"I am not at all satisfied with the information I have, and I have serious questions about the ownership structure of the establishment," Kraiberg said.

"It sounds to me as if Todd (Hutchins) is the owner here," Kraiberg added.

Raising even more concerns were several people who vehemently denied signing the liquor license petition submitted by the applicant.

To approve a liquor license, the city requires the consent of 51 percent of property owners within 350 feet of the establishment.

One of the five bogus signatures was that of resident Joseph Bosse, who died last August. Bosse's wife, Lucille, showed Kraiberg her husband's death certificate.

Kraiberg described the incident as very "concerning."

"Neighborhood consent is the backbone of liquor licensing," Kraiberg said. "If anything is amiss with that system, it concerns us very deeply."

Normally, a private firm hired by the applicant collects signatures via mail. Residents who support the applicant sign the application and mail it back to the signature-collecting company. The firm forwards these signatures to the city for review. The city then verifies the names of those who signed with the registered voters' list and the recorder of deed's office.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time people are honest and don't turn in fraudulent signatures," Kraiberg said. "Obviously, there's no way we can go out with a handwriting expert and check every signature."

Robert and Rita Byrnes said they had no idea how the signature mix-up-occurred.

"We never attempted to do anything like that, and I don't like this connotation. I didn't even know these people's names," Robert Byrnes told Kraiberg.

Kraiberg did not issue an official decision Monday afternoon but said he doubts the liquor license will see the light of day.


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