Fury and lament exploded in western Albemarle on June 12 when the popular Batesville Store announced it was closing at the order of the Virginia Department of Health, an action the department took after the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Safety [VDACS] determined that the store had exceeded its 15-seat limit for food customers as a country convenience store. Like the Titanic hitting an iceberg, the charming and flourishing store, a Batesville landmark that drew customers from all over western Albemarle, promptly sank into oblivion two days after the order to conform to restaurant standards or close was issued.
But now resurrection seems possible. County and state officials are working to find a way for the popular store to meet regulatory requirements and still function as it customarily did. And storeowners Cid and Liza Scallets say they look forward to reopening, if all goes well, before the end of the summer.
On that gloomy Saturday when it liquidated its grocery stock, scores of locals jammed into the store with boxes and bags to carry off the half-priced goods. Their line wound through the store, the supply and cultural center of the old turnpike village, as Cid Scallet dejectedly punched figures into the cash register. A petition placed at the front door to protest the closing promptly grew to 11 pages and 420 signatures by lunchtime. For all the outrage it tallied, it seemed more like the condolence book at a funeral.
Near the wine rack wall, Sarah White and Sian Richards sang and played. “We come every Sunday for the mac and cheese, so we’re taking it kind of personal,” said White. The nine tables—with their 30 chairs—in the room were stacked with customers’ selections. Five employees behind the counter kept emptying food from refrigerators and display cases, handing it over to buyers. At the chess table, two young boys carried on a game as the ceiling fans slowly churned the hot air in the room. The store seemed the scene of both a wake and an auction. Outside the road was cramped by dozens of parked cars along the narrow shoulders.
But meanwhile emails were slamming into the mailboxes of local and state elected officials, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, calling them to investigate what looked like an incidence of the government highhandedly snuffing out a well-liked country emporium.
“It’s a total ambush,” said Scallet that day. “A total ambush.” He said he would have to add a second bathroom to meet restaurant code, as he understood it, and that he was constrained from doing that by virtue of the fact that the store is a historic structure whose foot print could not be altered.
“It seems like things are pretty far gone,” observed regular Rachel Williamson, who was wearing her faded orange Batesville Store baseball cap. “It was a family-oriented place to be. And it supported a lot of local musicians. Nobody wins if they shut down.
“There’s got to be some sort of compromise. What’s the urgency? What if they had 90 days?” she wondered.
“They survive because they have figured out a way to survive and now that state says you can’t survive that way,” said Lisa Goehler. “Crozet is getting really cool and friendly and then this gets yanked out. We’re so mad to have this getting shoved down our throats.”
A couple of days later, fatalistically surveying the gleaned shelves, Scallet observed, “I think we helped Batesville. Every real estate listing around here mentions the store.
“We had some enemies. A few neighbors had come to us and said parking had become a problem and they didn’t want any outside amplification. Our music always ended at 9 p.m. I don’t know why this happened when it did.”
“I’m sick about what’s happening over there,” called out Rose Page—who ran the store when it went by the name Page’s—from her second floor porch across the road.
“The VDACS inspector was here five weeks ago and said nothing about seating,” grumbled Scallet.
“Liza asked, ‘No recourse?’ and the health department officials said, ‘No recourse.’ It cost us between $10,000 and $12,000 because we had just stocked up. I have 15 employees and they all lost their jobs.” They sold the stock and perishable food to be able to pay the employees for the last time, he said. “I know 500 people by name who are regulars at the store,” said Scallet.
“Albemarle planners have told us we were the model for a country store,” he noted. “As one of the officials who shut us down was leaving, she said, ‘A lot of folks tell us what a local treasure you are.’ That’s as she’s shutting us down.”
Scallet admitted that last fall they had gotten run down and even contemplated closing up, but after their Christmas vacation they came back reinvigorated. “We were marching along in April and May. We were busy and we felt like we had figured it out. We thought we would keep going.”
Scallett said he was open to a compromise that would bring the store back, but he didn’t want to fight the government and would concentrate meanwhile on Batesville Broadband, an Internet service provider he had started as a sideline to serve the Batesville area. It has expansion possibilities if an antenna can be put on Ennis Mountain.
“We are martyrs to the state,” he concluded.
Then the wound was fresh. But since then things have changed.
“Generally speaking, the politicians heard from a lot of people who were upset about the store closing,” said Scallet recently. “The Tuesday after the one we closed, the local department of health reached out to us and we went to a meeting about how to bring the kitchen up to code. We had a good meeting. With minimum hassle, we could create a kitchen that would permit us to do catering and be a restaurant.
“It turns out VDACS does not care how many seats we have if we have a kitchen that meets the health department’s requirements for a food service operation.”
There might even be advantages in the new set-up.
“According to the zoning governing country stores at least 65 years old, we can use up to 20 percent of our square store’s footage for seating area. Our building is 3,000 square feet, so we could use up to 600 square feet. We could also have that much area outside. Our former seating area was 300 square feet. So if we are up to code as a restaurant, VDACS does not care to regulate the number of seats we have and we could operate essentially the same way we have always operated.”
The improvements needed in the kitchen, a mop sink and some other plumbing upgrades, look to be affordable, Scallet said. Another requirement is a better front door that is designed to facilitate emergency evacuation. That also seems affordable, Scallet said. The current maximum occupancy is 50 persons, but with a new door that figure could be substantially lifted.
One obstacle remaining is whether the septic system will meet inspection standards, but given that the system has been handling the volume of customers it has for the last few years, the Scallets are hopeful that it will be approved. A meter on the outflow is needed to get necessary data for a determination. Scallet said that had they not been shut down that step could have been taken by now and the one serious obstacle remaining would be removed.
“County and state officials have made every effort to work with us,” said Scallet. “They’ve been responsive and it’s been a strong collaboration. There still lots of obstacles and the future is blurry, but everybody is trying to find a way to meet the regulatory frameworks—VDACS’s, the health department’s and the County’s zoning rules—and still let us be economically viable.”
Scallet said he called White Hall Supervisor and Board Chair Ann Mallek about the plight of the store after he was told by zoning administrator Ron Higgins that the county does not allow restaurants in the rural area, negating the impact of any steps the Scallets might take to conform under that approach. But subsequent discussions with the county established that the store would still be governed by the country store ordinance. “Ann put all these people in the room together and kept some pressure on,” Scallet said.
“We want to get back in if it can be profitable,” said Scallet. “We’re enthusiastic about the idea of reopening. This is our community. We feel we let the community down in a way. We think we can do it.
“It would probably take a month to get the necessary changes made,” he predicted. “We need a go-ahead about the septic. This is what we want to do. We were having a great time.”
“Parking is a mess” around the store, Scallet acknowledged, especially when musicians are playing there. The store has 25 spaces around it, including parking along the roads, and in an arrangement Scallet made with Batesville United Methodist Church, just west of the store, store customers are able to use the church’s 40 spaces on Friday and Saturday nights as well.
“The thing that has bothered us is that because the health department shut us down and we fell in between regulatory regimes, people think we must have done something wrong,” said Liza Scallet. “But we really did not do anything wrong.” The Scallets say they have never been given anything in writing about their violation of the 15-seat limit from VDACS or the state’s local health department office, only verbal orders.
But today, after all the sad turmoil of the closing, the store’s future is looking brighter and, possibly, even more secure.