Millville council hears from Block on proposed dinner theater

The Millville Town Council has decided to wait before acting on a request by Rich Bloch of Dicken’s Parlour Theatre to serve food on the premises.

The council heard his request on Tuesday, Sept. 25, at their workshop. While the theater is permitted to act as a banquet hall because of an amendment the council made to the town code, they are not permitted to serve food on the premises. Bloch said that means they currently have the food catered — something he cannot continue to do economically.

Councilman Harry Kent said he was interested in learning more from the Board of Health and the Office of the State Fire Marshal. He said he questioned the one-page document from the Board of Health, based on his experience with the Millville Farmer’s Market, saying he doubted an outdoor kitchen/grill facility would be held to “less restrictive regulations.”

Bloch had also said he was in constant contact with both agencies but had been invited by the council to come and talk about his request and didn’t want to “put the cart before the horse.”

He did say that, after talking with the agencies, he was sure they were “100 percent in agreement” that what he needed to be able to cook outside was a covering with a roof, but no walls were needed. He said he would provide email documentation he received from the fire marshal’s office.

Several of the council members questioned the cleanliness of a structure with a roof but no sides. They also questioned where the food would be stored.

“That is where we are different than a restaurant,” said Bloch. “There is no food storage. Everything is being cooked to order. We only have one group of people seeing the show and the entrée would be cooked on the spot.” He explained that the entrees, including the meat, would be cooked, and the other side dishes would be spooned onto plates but not prepared onsite.

He said he questioned the council using other towns’ definitions of a dinner theater to “pigeonhole” them into a category. He said that, while they do other things to ensure their survival in the resort area, they are primarily a performing arts theater.

“We are a performing arts theater. We sell T-shirts and decks of cards, but we are not a gift shop. We sell alcohol but are not a bar, and we serve food but are not a restaurant. And no one is aspiring to be one. Food is, by far, the least connected to what we do. But serving alcohol requires us to have food sales, as well. For that reason alone we do it.”

Mayor Gerry Hocker said that, while the agencies might have been in agreement on having a roof but not walls, it was different from what he envisioned.

“Millville’s always been pro-business — especially when a business is an asset to the town… We have changed the code for you three times already. But with the state agencies saying, as long as it doesn’t have walls… well, personally, I’m envisioning needing to see walls on it for the cleanliness and Board of Health issue of it,” said Hocker.

“In my mind, if we were to amend our code to write such an ordinance to allow a dinner theater, in my mind what you are requesting… I don’t envision that being the code that we would write if we were to start writing one today, to have it outdoor with a grill, etc.”

Town Manager Debbie Botchie explained that the way the code reads now, they are operating under a conditional use as a performing arts theater with banquet facility availability, meaning they can serve food to all their patrons but cannot prepare it onsite.

“Now you are talking about outdoor cooking, and there is nothing that addresses that. Outdoor cooking is not easily defined, and changing the code is not a simple thing to do. Dollar General could come in and say they’d like to do some outdoor cooking — you can set precedence real fast and in a hurry.”

Councilwoman Joan Bennett said she wanted to get a definition of “intensification of an aspect of a use,” because she said she was under the impression the difference between what Bloch can do now, serving catered food, and what he wants to do — preparing it on the outdoor grill — intensifies his use.

Councilman Jon Subity said he was “torn” and that the issue was worth exploring more. Both Kent and Councilman Robert Gordon wanted to see more documentation from the Board of Health and the fire marshal. Gordon also said he didn’t think the request would be “as bad” if they were talking about an inside kitchen, etc., and Hocker agreed, saying that, if the Town were to consider amending the code regarding dinner theaters, “this wouldn’t fit the criteria.”

The council members agreed they would get legal advice on the definition for Bennett and would have the state agencies come to do a site inspection before they would meet again, possibly at their October workshop, to discuss the request further.