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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    What’s Going On: Not licked yet, ice cream restaurant owners vow to fight on

    Matt Nemeth and wife Jenn, co-owners of The Ice Box restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., show files they had compiled as of Jan. 23 to document their dispute with the Brooklyn Fire District and East Brooklyn Fire Department as well as the town. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    At the tiny Sütő restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., workers take orders and prepare food out in the open on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, one day before Thanksgiving. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    At the Ice Box ice cream restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, one day before Thanksgiving, lines of customers await their treats. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    At the Sütő restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., next door to the Ice Box, signs urge customers to support the businesses run by Jenn and Matt Nemeth. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    A mother and son enjoy ice cream at The Ice Box on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023, one day before Thanksgiving, as signs from patrons call attention to the restaurant’s possible closure. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Sometimes business dreams come true, but Matt and Jenn Nemeth’s attempt to run two restaurants near a firehouse in the small Connecticut town of Brooklyn turned into a nightmare.

    As I chronicled in a column in May, the Nemeths opened The Ice Box and Sütő restaurants at 17 S. Main St. in Brooklyn, just north of Plainfield, with all the best intentions. Matt was raised in Ledyard, but Jenn grew up in the rural town where The Ice Box had been a staple of life for three generations.

    The dream for Matt, a former volunteer firefighter, was to run his own business after spending years advising clients with the Connecticut Small Business Development Center. Jenn, whose great grandfather served Brooklyn as first selectman, had a hankering to return to the town where she grew up to raise her own kids while earning a living running the Ice Box, a fabled ice cream business where she had worked as a teenager.

    Matt Nemeth initially told me in a phone interview last week that the dream was likely over, leaving them tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

    “We’re simply out of money,” he said.

    But in a follow-up visit Wednesday to Brooklyn to see the last vestiges of what had been a flourishing business, I heard from the Nemeths that they recently received a new infusion of money from a donor that will allow them to remain open and continue fighting the town. What’s more, they are pursuing a new legal stance that they couldn’t yet specify but which would involve litigation.

    “We will not be closing for the foreseeable future,” Matt said.

    While problems started with the East Brooklyn Fire Department next door, whose members the Nemeths blame for harassing Ice Box customers, disrupting the opening of the adjacent Sütő restaurant and eventually filing a lawsuit (since withdrawn) over a road-access dispute, the Nemeths more recently have been opposed by the town. Despite Brooklyn filing and then dropping its own suit, the middle-class family had to pay their attorneys tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fight the town and then to pursue a counter-claim.

    Actions cited by the Nemeths included the town’s revocation of a building permit for the Sütő shortly before it was set to open in 2021 as well as the fire company’s efforts for nearly three months to block parking to the Nemeths’ restaurants shortly after they hosted a drag queen event at The Ice Box. Firefighter claimed restaurant customers were parking in a fire lane, though the town had no ordinance authorizing fire lanes.

    Still, the town has steadfastly refused to settle the Nemeths’ claims that they are entitled to recouping hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue lost because of the fire department and town harassment, not to mention legal fees.

    About two dozen people (plus more on Zoom) attended a Brooklyn Board of Selectmen’s meeting this month to complain about the town’s treatment of the Nemeths and to request a town meeting to resolve the dispute as the selectmen sat stone-faced, rarely even attempting to defend their actions.

    In one break from constant statements that either he couldn’t respond because the case was in litigation or he couldn’t respond because the public comment portion of the meeting was not a time for debate, First Selectman Austin Tanner made clear the town’s delay tactics were about money, not principle. He bristled at the idea posed by one citizen that the Nemeths were owed as much as $1 million by the town.

    “We do have responsibility to taxpayers in town and, you know, you're talking a million dollars, you're talking a couple mills (in the tax rate),” he said. “If you're all willing to pay two more mills on your taxes, that's something to consider, too. But we do have responsibilities.”

    Townspeople, ironically meeting at a building named after Jenn’s great-grandfather Clifford B. Green, fired back relentlessly at Tanner and the board without much response.

    “The optics are Brooklyn hates small business,” said one resident, who identified himself as a local Realtor during the recorded session. “In our town, Brooklyn, a fire company can crush a small business with the help of the town.”

    “It is baffling to me this is going on for so long,” added another resident.

    “These poor people are just trying to run a family-owned business that's been wonderful for this town,” added another. “And if we end up having to lose them because of all that they've been through, it would be a real shame.”

    The Nemeths originally told the community they had set Nov. 30 as a closing date, partially because they fell behind on their sales and use payments to the state and were worried about losing their license as of that date. But the state is now giving them time to catch up with their payments, they say.

    “We’ve had a huge amount of support from the community,” Matt Nemeth said, including contributions to a GoFundMe legal defense fund.

    Even their employees, who number as many as 50 in the summer, have been contributing to the cause, appearing at meetings and a rally earlier this month. Several appeared with Jenn Nemeth on a Facebook podcast production called “Community Work Bench” to tell about their struggles and worries about losing their jobs.

    One, Errin Joly, recounted how the Nemeths had become a second family to her. She felt so strongly she penned a note to the Board of Selectmen that said, in part, “This is supposed to be the happiest time of year, but for many it’s the saddest. Listen to your town; they are telling you in droves what to do.”

    The Nemeths said they had big long-term plans for their restaurant business, including an expansion in the back of their property and perhaps locations in other towns.

    “Our whole plan has been growth,” Jenn said during the Facebook interview. “This was just a beginning.”

    Matt said he had high hopes a few months ago the town would settle the suit, but the insurance company has apparently decided the odds are favorable that a delay will cause the Nemeths to run out of money and give up their legal battle.

    “They’ve done a complete 180 and are doubling down,” he said. “It’s clear the town doesn’t care and wants to keep litigating.”

    It looks like the Nemeths are now ready to battle on, and if what I saw on Wednesday is any indication (droves of local teachers on their half day dropping by Sütő for its creative cuisine and lines for ice cream practically out the door at the Ice Box), local support is gathering to make sure this community treasure is here to stay.

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. Reach him at l.howard@theday.com.

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