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Meeting heats up over Sarah’s Kitchen

Friday, June 11, 2021
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Leader photo by CALEB DANIEL

This building that once housed the soul food restaurant Sarah’s Kitchen is being reviewed by Ruston’s Board of Aldermen for possible demolition.

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Leader photo by NANCY BERGERON

Warning signs were posted on a tree outside of the former site of Sarah’s Kitchen to keep intruders off the property. The once-popular restaurant has been closed for 22 years.

The fate of the building that housed the once-popular Sarah’s Kitchen soul food restaurant could be decided next month by Ruston’s Board of Aldermen.

The restaurant, located at 609 Lee Avenue, has been closed since 1999 and is on the city’s list of substandard structures to be considered for demolition.

Aldermen were poised to make a decision Monday until one of the heirs said the family doesn’t want the building torn down, nor do they want to change its look, even after 22 years of idleness.

The board doesn’t meet again until July 12. In the meantime, city officials are researching issues that came to light during an almost half-hour, sometimes intense exchange between Daphne Albritton Large and city authorities Monday night.

Sarah’s Kitchen was owned and operated by Large’s parents, the late Sarah and Robert Albritton.

At one point, Large accused city Building Official Bill Sanderson of not making “a true inspection” of the property.

“I feel offended, personally,” Large said. “I know this is standard business for you all, but my mother only closed her eyes six months ago. And we have this particular ordinance being discussed by you all. So it’s very difficult to have to stand here and have to defend Sarah’s Kitchen as it is known. To ask that it not be demolished. Sarah’s Kitchen was part of the history of this town. It’s brought notoriety to this town.”

Sarah Albritton died in November of 2020 at age 84. The restaurant was in operation from 1987 to 1999.

Large acknowledged that the family does not have a plan for the building and is using it only for storage. They’ve had a fallen tree removed this week. Large said Thursday morning that the family plans to do additional cleanup.

Though Lee Street is residential, the restaurant was allowed to locate there under zoning regulations in place at the time. The building is actually a mobile home that’s had a shack-like façade built around it and a tin roof placed over it. Large said the façade was intentionally done to give the structure the look of an old-time restaurant.

Now, one of the questions is whether a vacated facility can be used as a storage building in a residential area.

The city’s zoning code appears to say no. Storage units are allowed if there is a residence on a lot. But Large told aldermen, and reiterated in a follow-up interview, that nobody plans to live in the old restaurant.

“We’re not occupying the building — ever,” she said.

Large, who lives in Trussville, Ala., said the family had considered turning the structure into a museum, but that wouldn’t happen in the short term.

“So, it’s a vacant building,” Ruston Mayor Ronny Walker said.

“It’s a vacant building,” Large said.

According to the Lincoln Parish Assessor’s website, Robert and Sarah Albritton bought the property in 1986. The report says the original structure was built in 1950. Its condition is listed as “Poor.”

The property has been on the city’s radar for almost a year as part of a plan to demolish blighted housing using funds from a Louisiana Community Development Block Grant. The grant allows for demolition at no cost to the property owner.

“Does this house meet a substandard condition?” City Attorney Bill Carter asked Sanderson during Monday’s hearing.

“Yes,” Sanderson said.

Ruston has a lengthy process for declaring structures substandard before aldermen are asked to start the condemnation clock. Property owners are given the opportunity to repair buildings — typically within a 30-to 90-day period — if they wish to do so and if aldermen agree.

It’s the Board of Aldermen’s decision as to what to do with structures deemed substandard.

Sanderson’s official inspection report on the Lee Street property is dated April 19, 2021, and lists 14 deficiencies ranging from general dilapidation to structural hazards, fire hazards, sanitation issues and electrical problems.

He said the Albritton heirs were sent a letter dated April 22 notifying them that a recommendation had been made by the inspections office asking aldermen for permission to start the condemnation process on the building and that the request would be on aldermen’s May 3 agenda.

“This is simply the permission for the city council to set a hearing date,” Sanderson said.

That hearing was Monday. Until then, no one from the family had talked with Sanderson.

“Our first conversation with anybody with the family occurred at the June 7 meeting,” Sanderson said.

Large said the family received the notification but thought their property was going to be removed from the list as a result of a conversation with Alderwoman Angela Mayfield, who represents the Lee Street area.

“We knew it was going to go in front of the city council last month,” Large said. “But we had talked with the alderwoman, and we kind of thought it would be taken off the list.”

Large said Mayfield told the family all they needed to do was clean up the site, and they did.

Then they received the notice about Monday’s meeting “and we’re like, ‘They’re going to tear it down if we don’t interject,’” Large said.

Mayfield said some of the deficiencies noted on the April 19 report seem to be in error, and she thought further inspection would bear that out. She said she knew the building’s façade was intended to make it look run down.

Large also questions some of Sanderson’s finding, particularly one dealing with lighting. According to the report, the building lacks required electrical lighting. But Large points to motion lights that have been added to the old building.

Large acknowledged the property needed some cleanup. She said she’s willing to do the minimum that’s acceptable.

“We don’t mind doing some basic cleanliness around the kitchen,” she told aldermen. “We don’t want to change the way the building appears.”

“It’s just being used for storage,” Large said in a follow-up interview on Wednesday. “Why do I have to spend a small fortune for storage?

She said family members “very rarely” go in the structure.

“I would like to work with the city to try to come to a more reasonable approach rather than checking every box — and that’s what they did,” Large said. “I’m not trying to make a fuss. I’m just trying to protect what our parents established.”

Meantime, Sanderson praised aldermen for putting off a decision until their July 12 meeting.

“I think the council did an excellent job to postpone to give time to do adequate research, because the first and foremost thing is to treat the property owner with all fairness,” he said.