Defiant pizza joint cited for allegedly operating without a restaurant license

Signs on the front doors of Underground Pizza Network in Seal Rock warn that government officials who enter the premises to enforce “unconstitutional mandates” will be prosecuted and sued. (Photo by Kenneth Lipp)

SEAL ROCK — Underground Pizza Network displays signs that threaten to sue and prosecute health officials who attempt to enforce “unconstitutional mandates.” Now, the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office has cited the restaurant, formerly named Ballantoni’s New York Pizzeria, on the misdemeanor charge of selling food without a restaurant license and thus without food safety inspections.

The signs on the front doors of the pizza parlor, located at 10535 NW Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Rock, say that “officials from OSHA, any health authorities or any government agencies or officials … here on any government business including unconstitutional mandates, such as mask wearing and lockdown are excluded from entering this property.”

Violation of the notice will result in a call to the sheriff for trespassing and a personal lawsuit, the signs warn. “You should get another job; your boss is putting you in harms way.”

A photograph of the signs circulated on social media last month. A spokesperson for Oregon Occupational Safety and Health said the agency received a complaint in February alleging the restaurant was “failing to enforce facial coverings with staff and patrons” and  “refusing to get licensed for being a restaurant from Lincoln County to avoid COVID restrictions.” The complaint remains open, the spokesperson said, adding the agency does not discuss ongoing investigations.

State law requires restaurants to obtain a license through a local health authority before offering food to the public. The licensing process involves a plan review and one-time fee before opening or after remodeling, twice yearly inspections to ensure safety rules are followed — this produces the familiar health score that restaurants are required to post publicly — and an annual fee that ranges from $636 to $940, depending on the number of seats.

A Lincoln County Public Health spokesperson told the News-Times another restaurant, Ballantoni’s New York Pizzeria, opened at the Underground Pizza Network location April 8, 2020, and its owner, Aaron Kimball, did initially obtain a health department license.  

The spokesperson said the environmental health division, which oversees restaurant licensees, received multiple complaints about Ballantoni’s compliance with COVID regulations such as mask wearing, and issued a warning letter to the owner in October.

Kimball did not pay to renew the restaurant license Dec. 31, and the health department notified him Jan. 15 that he would need to shut down or come into compliance. On Jan. 20, Kimball called the department and said he would close the restaurant rather than comply.

The next day, environmental health became aware that the restaurant was still open. A  department representative visited the business and notified management it was operating without a license.

The following week, the department was contacted by Kurt Lent, who said he was now the business’ operator. Following that conversation, the department spokesperson said, environmental health determined voluntary compliance could not be achieved and referred the case to county counsel. It also filed a complaint with Oregon OSHA.

On Feb. 9, the health department received a letter from Lent. Included was a check for the licensing fee and a contract he said the county must sign in order to accept the money. The contract would prohibit health department officials from visiting the business. Unable to enter such a contract, the health department sent the check back to Lent. (In any case, Lent would not be permitted to operate under the previous license — restaurant licenses are not transferable). 

On March 12, an environmental health representative went to the restaurant accompanied by Lincoln County sheriff’s deputies to deliver a citation for operating without a license, which is a Class C misdemeanor and can result in a civil fine of up to $1,000 per day a restaurant is open without a license.

The News-Times found the Underground Pizza Network open on Sunday, March 21. An employee said Lent wasn’t there and noted that the actual owner of the restaurant is Kartal Homes. He said they’d not had any trouble over the signs, and a couple of sheriff’s deputies had even come by and “said it was valid.”

According to the Oregon Secretary of State business registry, the authorized agent for the company is Rita Kartalyan, and the registrant is Kartal Homes, LLC, with an address of 1038 NE Fogarty St. in Newport. Lent is not named in the pizza parlor’s state business registration, and it’s not clear if Kimball is still involved in the business. Kartalyan is a real state agent with listings throughout Lincoln County.

Kartalyan registered under the same business name as Kimball’s, Ballantoni’s New York Pizzeria, on Jan. 21. On Feb. 10, she signed an application for amendment, changing the name to Underground Pizza Network.

Contacted by the News-Times, Kartalyan said, “You need to speak to Kurt at this point, he’s the one that’s handling it,” and passed the phone to Lent, her husband. 

“There’s an application for the entire shooting match already in,” Lent said, and he asked what place the News-Times had asking questions about the restaurant. 

“You think I give a f****** dog**** about what a newspaper in Newport has to say? Here’s what I have to say,” he said, and hung up. 

The News-Times requested a record of communications between environmental health and the owners/operators of Ballantoni’s and Underground Pizza Network. A man who answered the phone at the restaurant on Tuesday said it was open and planned to remain so. The citation for operating without a license is scheduled for arraignment April 15.

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