Hemp Bar Owner Calls Health Department 'Beyond Stupid' After Being Shut Down

Brooklyn Dark Hemp Bar on St. Marks in the East Village
Brooklyn Dark Hemp Bar on St. Marks in the East Village

The Brooklyn Dark Hemp Bar, a small East Village business specializing in hemp-based chocolates and pastries, has been forced to close, the owners announced earlier this month. After the Department of Health mandated the installation of two additional sinks — for which owner Lev Kelman insists there is not enough space — he shut down the store altogether. Opened just over two months ago, on August 15, the shop sold a variety of hemp-based desserts and beverages including lemon blondies, cookies, fudge, coffee, mate, rice-milk lattes, and hot chocolate. 

Before opening, Kelman had the site inspected to make sure it was up to health standards. There were two sinks left from the space's earlier incarnation as a café called I Am Coffee. One was used for hand washing, the other for rinsing utensils and plates.

But in early October, Kelman says, city health inspectors came in with new rules, which he was cited for violating: There needed to be no fewer than four sinks: one for soaking dishes, two others for sanitizing and rinsing dishes, one for hand washing. “Everything is vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, and there’s no allergens, no possible contamination,” says Kelman. “It’s literally just small plates and two tongs [to pick up the food]. That’s why they require me to install three-compartment sinks? It’s beyond stupid.”

Kelman went to court to contest the violations, and instead was slapped with an $800 fine, on top of closing his business — one that, he points out, also created jobs for people. “Is that how they treat businesspeople in New York? I’m a small business and that’s how you’re treating me? I don’t know if I want to be in New York anymore, I’m sorry,” says Kelman. “I’m not an IBM, I’m not an Apple, you cannot treat me like this. I need all the help I can get.”

The health department works closely with restaurant owners to guide them through the permitting and inspection processes. Kelman had a meeting with the Department of Health on August 25 at which, health officials say, he was informed that he needed a three-compartment sink pursuant to Health Code 81.29A. On October 2, he had an initial pre-permit inspection and was cited for not having a three-compartment sink to wash, rinse, and sanitize dishes and utensils. Officials say three-compartment sinks are available in small sizes and could have been easily installed, or that the Hemp Bar could have used a two-compartment sink while adopting clearly defined procedures to make sure that dirty and clean dishes and utensils never mix.

“Brooklyn Dark Hemp was closed by the owner and not by an order of the health department," says a department spokesperson. "Brooklyn Dark Hemp, like every other restaurant in NYC, needs to wash its dishes and cookware properly. A three-compartment sink enables washing, rinsing, and sanitizing to occur separately, critical for preventing contamination. This restaurant, like others, can request a variance if it can assure the department that sanitizing can occur safely. At no time did the department close this restaurant. Its decision to close was entirely its own.”

Up until he shut down the Hemp Bar, Kelman says business was doing “OK.” He needed to explain to potential customers that the hemp foods would not get them high, but rather that they were just highly nutritious. He said his business was the first hemp bar in the United States and carried his four-year-old line of Brooklyn Dark chocolates — all hemp-based, vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free. They’re sold in nearly thirty health food stores around the city, but Kelman wanted to open his own shop to educate his customers about hemp.

“We cannot be a green society without hemp,” he says. The Hemp Bar had a big sign in the window outlining the importance and benefits of hemp, which can be used for food, textiles, paper, even fuel. Kelman calls it a “superfood,” rich in omega-3 and -6, which he wanted to pair with chocolate, another “superfood.”

The hemp found in his products comes from Canada, the cacao from Central America; the chocolate was created and packaged in Brooklyn. The cocoa itself is Rainforest Alliance Certified, meaning that it was grown and harvested sustainably, with living wages paid to farmers. Kelman says he aimed for a product as nutritionally clean and ethical as possible. “We’re trying to educate people why it’s good to be good.”

Currently, Kelman has no plans to open a new store. The cost of reopening and paying rent and utility bills, along with maintenance and inspections, isn’t cheap or easy for a small-business owner. “Right now I’m so bitter and upset, I don’t want to do that. I can close and reopen, of course, but I only have so much money,” says Kelman. “I’m literally thinking to change the name [of Brooklyn Dark] and move away. It’s a lot of pain and headache — people who do this should be helped, not punished.” 

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