Drinks flowed and chatter buzzed as the horn player and the drummer of a classic jazz band entertained the well-dressed crowd that bustled inside the 192-seat restaurant called Lola. On a recent Monday night—typically the slowest in the restaurant industry—business for this intimately styled, 3,300-square-foot dining destination in New York City’s trendy SoHo neighborhood seemed solid. But in this case, looks were very deceiving.
For the last four years, the restaurant’s owner, Lola-Gayle Patrick-Odeen, and her husband, Tom, have been engaged in a bitter and costly battle with the SoHo Alliance, a powerful community group that opposed the restaurant’s license applications to offer liquor and live music—major revenue drivers for its business. But one of the restaurant’s most outspoken opponents argues that this clash could have been avoided. “I said to her from day one, ‘Gayle, you really should move somewhere else,’” says Sean Sweeney, director of the SoHo Alliance. “‘We’re going to fight this and we’re going to win. We always win.’”
Patrick-Odeen denies that Sweeney said this to her. But she didn’t care about the organization’s size or influence. While the SoHo Alliance didn’t prevail—Lola now operates with a full liquor license and live music as its owner intended—the conflict took a substantial toll. Patrick-Odeen and her husband were forced to liquidate $800,000 in stocks and property; they lost investors and an attorney; and they are facing an estimated $250,000 in legal bills. The mounting debts forced the restaurant to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from its creditors in late August.
For Patrick-Odeen, the jury is still out on whether or not Lola will ultimately survive.
A Question of Rights
The petite owner says the exhausting fight challenged much more than her right to open a business, it attacked her integrity as a business owner as well as her basic civil rights. Patrick-Odeen, originally from Barbados, believes racism fuels this controversy—the Patrick-Odeens are an interracial couple. “If my husband and I were a white couple … I don’t believe [this would be happening],” she says. “What we were hearing from people in the community is that [opponents] were saying things like we were going to be a tipping point to turn SoHo into another Harlem, that we were opening a black, hip-hop club.”
Sweeney denies his opposition was racially motivated. Instead, he says, it stemmed from the community being fed up with the oversaturation of establishments serving alcohol in the neighborhood. The group was also particularly opposed to Lola because of the plan to offer late-night live music in the partly residential area. “It really pisses me off that race was ever introduced,” Sweeney emphasizes. “It was a bad business decision. I think she’s using that as a smoke screen to offer an escape to her investors.”
Sweeney, however, doesn’t deny the racially charged comments he made earlier this year to The Village Voice. He told the weekly newspaper: “I don’t think you need a martini to go with chitlins and collard greens. What wine goes with jambalaya? I can’t think of one.