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    Local Columns
    Thursday, April 18, 2024

    What’s Going On: Wake up! A dream dies at family business in Brooklyn

    The Ice Box restaurant was busy on Nov. 22, 2023, which owners Jenn and Matt Nemeth had feared would be one of its last days. Instead, the popular Brooklyn, Conn., ice cream store stayed open another three months before closing in February 2024. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Workers prepare food at Suto restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., on Nov. 22, 2023. The restaurant closed in February 2024. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Patrons of The Ice Box in Brooklyn, Conn., enjoy an ice cream on Nov. 22, 2023, surrounded by signs made by children urging people to help save the restaurant after it had been sued by the East Brooklyn Fire Department for allegedly not keeping customers from parking in a fire lane. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    The Ice Box restaurant in Brooklyn, Conn., owned by Matt and Jenn Nemeth, had been in business for more than 40 years when it was forced to close earlier this month as it fought the town and a local fire department. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    They were beaten down. Harassed. And finally this middle-age couple with two kids were defeated in their efforts to pursue the dream of owning their own business. Now they are forced to move from the place they called home.

    No, we’re not talking about a refugee crossing the border from Mexico. Or a political prisoner from an authoritarian regime looking for a better life.

    We’re talking about the owners of a very popular ice cream shop and restaurant in Brooklyn, a small community just up the road off Interstate 395. Right here in the US of A.

    “I hope what happened to us doesn’t happen to anybody else, because it’s just a horrible feeling to be essentially run out of your own hometown,” The Ice Box co-owner Jenn Nemeth said in a heartbreaking interview last weekend broadcast on NBC Connecticut.

    Jenn and Matt Nemeth, who also own the contiguous Sütő restaurant, quietly closed down their operation as of last weekend, after years of fighting a nearby fire department, the Brooklyn Fire District and the town over a series of nonsensical and seemingly frivolous lawsuits.

    “It was a tough decision,” Matt Nemeth, a native of Ledyard, told me Wednesday in a phone interview. “We decided it’s time to pull the plug so we can focus on whatever else (we decide to do). ... We have to move on from Brooklyn.”

    The final straw, he added, was when it became clear the town, fire district and fire department had all circled the wagons and were going to continue with their lawsuit even as they kept delaying their responses to the Nemeths’ countersuit seeking damages for destroying their business.

    “We thought we were going to settle this months ago,” Matt said. “We realized they were not going to play ball, they were going to litigate us to death ... We don’t have any money left.”

    It all started, as you may recall from previous columns, when the Nemeths refused to sell three acres in back of their property to the East Brooklyn Fire Department. Firefighters, according to the couple, subsequently started harassing them and customers about people parking on the street next to The Ice Box in what they claimed was a fire lane (although there were no markings for a fire lane at the time, nor was there an ordinance specifying the process for creating fire lanes).

    The harassment ramped up after the community reacted angrily to the Nemeths inviting a drag queen to a private Queens & Cones event a year or so later. The dispute became a full-out war when firefighters erected a fence blocking customers from using a back parking lot, and the town revoked a building permit initially preventing the new Sütő restaurant from opening.

    So if this is a preview of what the culture wars mean for small business owners who dare to think out of the box and stand up for free speech and property rights in rural America, it’s not just the Nemeths who are in trouble.

    Potentially, we all are now exposed to the harassment of the anti-woke crowd, who will not abide people who think or act differently, or bring creative food and an open attitude to town.

    Austin Tanner, the Brooklyn first selectman, didn’t respond to specific questions about the situation because of ongoing litigation, but did write in an email: “It is a big deal for our Town to lose any business. I have respect for Matt and Jenn and for their community involvement, and I feel the Town has been supportive. What is not understood by many is that JMN (the legal entity for the restaurants) is suing the Town. Brooklyn welcomes all businesses to Town and encourages them to meet our staff, our Brooklyn Business Association, and talk to businesses that have been successful for years.”

    Later, the town’s attorneys weighed in with a statement: “It is important to clarify that the Town itself has not sued JMN Properties.. ... In contrast, it is JMN Properties that brought a cross claim against the Town, and in that cross claim JMN Properties seeks alleged monetary damages from the Town. It is JMN Properties’ cross claim, which is disputed by the Town, which has impacted JMN Properties’ ability to bring amicable resolution to this matter.”

    Ironically, about the same time I was talking to Matt, the Brooklyn first selectman’s Facebook page posted that the town was hoping to hire an economic development staff person who would be hired by the now-dormant economic development commission.

    As Hamby Sarah said in a Facebook comment, “Hey I'll bet they'd recommend keeping a certain ice cream store around. Oh well.”

    Other Facebook respondents to The Ice Box’s farewell post in Brooklyn were not quite so lighthearted.

    “We, the citizens of Brooklyn, will dearly miss you and all the wonderful things you have done for this community,” said commenter Sally DeVillez Wood. “It is definitely a sad state of affairs when your government is hell bent on smashing a dream you have apparently had for a long time.”

    “You were a blessing to the town of Brooklyn but unfortunately the powers that be didn’t fight hard enough to help you but did what they could to hurt you … for that they should be ashamed,” said Tim Daley, one of nearly 100 people who commented (nearly 1,000 in all engaged with the post).

    Jenn and Matt said the final day of their five-year business odyssey in Brooklyn Saturday proved a difficult one as customers sobbed and reminisced about first dates, wedding proposals and after-game celebrations held at the restaurants over the past few years.

    The most crushing effect, Matt said, has been on their children, now 6 and 9.

    One of them, precocious Wynton (named after jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) recently asked them while driving past the East Brooklyn Fire Department, “Why do all the other fire departments like us and this one doesn’t?” Matt, a former volunteer firefighter himself, had no words.

    The final days included a “celebrity scoop” in which teachers and school administrators dished out the final ice cream treats at The Ice Box, which has been a staple in town for more than 40 years.

    “We broke all our sales records during those two days, but it’s sad,” Matt Nemeth said.

    “It’s hard being a small business,” Jenn, a native of Brooklyn, said in her TV interview. “The dream is the biggest thing because this is always what I wanted to be.”

    But the Nemeths vow the dream hasn’t died. It may just move a few towns away and perhaps closer to Matt’s southeastern Connecticut roots, as the family looks to relocate both their restaurants.

    “The shoreline has always been appealing to us,” Matt said.

    And, no doubt, far more welcoming than Brooklyn proved to be.

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him for comments or suggestions, email l.howard@theday.com.

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