Rebecca Masson went from crying tears of frustration to tears of joy after the community banded together to help her and her local bakery, Fluff Bake Bar, out of a tough situation.
Masson became the tenant at 1701 W. 15th St. earlier this year and, because of an issue related to previous construction on the property, said the City of Houston forced her to temporarily close her business and make changes to the building that cost more than $25,000.
“When I took possession of the building on Jan. 27, the construction was 95 percent done,” Masson said. “I had to hang my lights and that kind of stuff.”
Prior to opening on March 21, Masson said she received a certificate of occupancy permit from the city, which followed four inspections: electrical, plumbing, mechanical and structural.
Masson said she was told she had to install a hood vent over the oven and had six months to do it. In the meantime, she said she was given a temporary certificate of occupancy.
“I then called the (Houston Health Department). The health department then came in and inspected me,” Masson said. “They passed me and gave me a food dealers permit and a grease trap permit. A week later the grease trap inspector came. He passed me.”
Four months later, Masson said she submitted a plan to the city to get a permit to install the hood vent. She said the city approved it and sent it to the health department.
But according to Masson, a health inspector came on July 15 and realized they had never seen blueprints for the grease trap, something that should have been submitted during construction and before Masson took possession of the building, she said. Masson does not own the property, according to information on the Harris County Appraisal District website.
“Regulations for safely operating a food service establishment are provided during the permit application process. Reviewing the regulations and complying are the responsibility of the operator,” said Scott Packard, chief communications and public affairs officer for the Houston Health Department.
According to Packard, the Houston Health Department employee who performed the inspection in March overlooked the grease trap issue and released the permit.
“Business properties that change ownership often have grease traps already in place. Since they are outside with a manhole cover, they can be mistaken with other sewer equipment,” Packard said.
On July 16, the health inspector came back and told Masson she had to temporarily shut down the bakery.
“The health inspector came, showed me the email with the subject line ‘bootleg bakery’ and said I was ordered to be temporarily closed because of illegal construction,” Masson said. “And I had to submit plans to the city for plan review.”
After submitting a plan review for the city, Masson said she had to wait two weeks before she was told by the health department that the grease trap had to be completely removed from the ground. She said she had to buy a different grease trap and install it outside. A plumbing line had to be replaced, Masson said, and she had to put in a bigger hot water heater as well as install the hood vent.
Another change that the city mandated was related to the bathrooms inside the bakery, Masson said. Because of the occupancy load, 19 people, Masson said she was told she would have to remodel the one bathroom into one male and one female bathroom, each with its own toilet and sink.
Construction is a few weeks away from completion, and Masson said the health department has come out for inspection every step of the way.
Masson said a big help in getting permitting expedited has been Houston City Council member Abbie Kamin, who represents the area in District C.
“Fluff Bake Bar is a beloved part of the neighborhood, and, like so many others, a small business struggling to keep going in the midst of COVID,” Kamin said. “My office is always here to help constituents navigate permitting issues, or any other city matter – and we’re so happy to have been able to help. We really appreciate the outpouring of support for the bakery from the community.”
After opening just days into the COVID-19 pandemic, Masson said that while the bakery was operating, she felt secure it would make it to the other side of the pandemic. But having to temporarily shut down for construction, which has resulted in no income for the last six weeks, has been hard.
“Thankfully my friend Ben (Sassani) started the GoFundMe and my community overwhelmingly gave,” Masson said. “I’m speechless about that. That’s going to help tremendously, because my nest egg is gone. I’ve written all the checks. It’s gone.”
The GoFundMe had an original goal of $25,000 and, as of Wednesday, it had raised more than $30,000. The GoFundMe can be found here: https://www.gofundme.com/f/fluff-bake-bar-unexpected-rebuild.
Masson said the raised funds will cover the construction bills, plus help pay for one month’s rent.
“I don’t know how to thank people. Thank you doesn’t seem like enough,” Masson said. “I’m just overwhelmed by the kindness of people.”