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Catfish & More

Catfish & More, 1644 Washington Ave., is going to be able to reopen after Racine's Plan Commission lifted the revocation of the carryout restaurant's conditional-use permit. The restaurant repeatedly had been staying open longer than it was allowed, although the owner said she did not know she had to close by midnight on weekends.

RACINE — The Catfish & More carryout restaurant in Uptown will be allowed to reopen, albeit with its closing time strictly enforced.

The city ordered the eatery to close on July 9 following numerous late-night reports of “large crowds and disturbances” concerning patrons of the restaurant over the past two years.

The restaurant had also been staying open until 3 a.m. on weekends, even though its conditional-use permit stated the restaurant is supposed to close at midnight.

Catfish & More, 1644 Washington Ave., had its conditional-use permit revoked on July 9, a decision that owner Vanessa Boutwell subsequently appealed. The Plan Commission lifted the revocation by a unanimous vote Wednesday evening.

Boutwell said paperwork she initially provided to the city Health Department stated her intention to stay open until 3 a.m. on weekends, a provision about which police were not aware.

And the Health Department and city development staff were not aware that the permit was not being followed until April, more than two years after the restaurant opened back on Feb. 1, 2017.

Boutwell, a mother of four and grandmother of five, teared up at the end of the meeting when it became clear that she would be able to reopen.

Two third-shift Racine police officers and Boutwell agreed that closing at midnight would remedy the problems, even if it could impact Catfish & More’s late-night business.

“It was an overwhelming process, but I’m really grateful that the commission uplifted the revocation,” Boutwell said afterward.

A reopening date hasn’t been set yet, but Catfish & More — one of only a few soul food options in the city — is expected to be serving again sometime in the next few weeks.

Why did it have to close?

The vast majority of the complaints occurred after 2 a.m., according to police, as people leaving bars stopped at the carryout-only restaurant; Catfish & More is one of only a handful of city restaurants open past midnight.

“When the bar closes, they (the bar crowd) come to me because I was the only restaurant open in town at that time,” Boutwell explained.

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Since the restaurant doesn’t have a parking lot and there isn’t much room inside, cars often would end up being parked illegally and patrons would occasionally congregate near Washington Avenue’s intersection with Packard Avenue while they waited for their food to be prepared inside, police said.

The city sent Boutwell a letter on April 25, informing her that Catfish & More was supposed to be closing at midnight and not 3 a.m., but Boutwell said that letter never arrived.

“It was an honest mistake on my behalf,” Boutwell admitted, referring to breaking the conditional-use permit. “I would’ve honestly complied if I had known I was supposed to close at 12.”

The Racine Police officers who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting both said that 911 calls from people who live nearby were common. They often complained of loud music, unruly customers and people standing in the street, police said.

Issues crescendoed just before 3 a.m. on July 7 when it took 14 officers and a K9 unit 25 minutes to clear an estimated 150-200 people from the area “and restore order,” according to a police report. Catfish & More’s permit was officially revoked two days later.

One officer wrote in the July 7 police report: “It is painfully clear that Catfish & More is not equipped in space nor personnel needed in order to maintain safety and handle the large after bar crowd which frequents their business.”

“This is kind of a big issue … from what I witnessed,” Officer Jacob Mauer said of the reported disturbances during Wednesday’s meeting. “If Vanessa closed at midnight, it would be a non-issue … There was nothing going on there out of the ordinary until 2:30 or 3 o’clock.”

Cultural differences

Plan Commissioner Marvin Austin feared that some of the calls police had to respond to in the area were racially motivated, even though Mauer disagreed.

“I would imagine that some (of the police calls) might have been people doing something they shouldn’t have been doing,” Austin said. “But I imagine some of them were just a crowd there and someone called and said ‘There’s a group of men out in front of my house’ … They’re not doing anything, they just were there, waiting for 15 minutes before going back across the street to get their food.”

Although closing earlier is what has been agreed upon right now, Austin believes that the whole situation only occurred because of communitywide misunderstandings of cultural differences.

“This young lady (Boutwell) has a business there. And in black communities, you try to serve people as they are … Nobody serves black communities, from a business standpoint, in the way we need to be served … I’m telling this community, we can do a better job of serving the black community with black economics,” said Austin, who is black. “Let’s stop trying to beat Ms. Boutwell up. Let’s not try to beat up these young people who are trying to get a catfish sandwich at 2:30 in the morning. Let’s start trying to figure out how to get more catfish in better places at 3 o’clock in the morning, so that when they come out of the bar they can go get something in a way that we would all consider orderly.”

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