Lisa Consiglio Ryan believes in the power of juice.
It transformed her from teacher to certified health coach with a popular, seasonal detox program. She wrote “Go Clean, Sexy You,” a bestseller that offers advice on healthy eating. It propelled her to open Rasa Juice Shop, selling creations from the recipes in her book.
Juice just isn’t enough, though, to get around sewer rules in Annapolis. Before she can leave her commercial kitchen behind and squeeze juice from the back of her new store near the Maryland State House, Ryan will have to pay $85,000 to comply.
“It was very traumatic. As I talk about it, I just get so upset and I’m so confused,” Ryan said. “My engineer was like, ‘What is happening?’ We just didn’t know what to do.”
I heard this tale from friends, some of them tripping over their outrage as they explained that Ryan was being asked to install a grease interceptor for a business that wouldn’t put any grease into the sewer system.
It was proof, they said, that Annapolis isn’t a friendly place for small businesses.
Even with my deep skepticism about that twice-told tale, $85,000 is a ridiculous bill for juiced carrots, celery and citrus. Ryan even composts her leftovers.
Why is the city so insistent on a grease interceptor? Their answer is, well, disgusting.
“One of the main causes of sanitary sewer overflows is backup,” said Mitchelle Stephenson, a city spokesperson. “People put a lot of things down a sewer that don’t go there.”
Grease is one of them. It goes down as a liquid but turns solid below. It is the glue in fatbergs, rocklike conglomerations of wipes, hair, Q-tips, paper towels, condoms and other stuff I’d rather not list.
Any business that might put grease down the drain has to have an interceptor. The rules are designed to prevent costly, messy sewer breaks that pollute rivers and creeks flowing into the Chesapeake Bay. No exceptions, City Manager Mike Mallinoff said through Stephenson.
You’re probably thinking what I was, at this point. Ryan should have known that her new shop on Maryland Avenue would require a massive investment. She ruefully admits it. That was her mistake.
But her mistake has some roots in the day Mayor Gavin Buckley walked into her original shop.
“Gavin was a big supporter,” Ryan said. “He would come in and say, ‘We gotta get you a kitchen. You got to make juice here. We want you to make your Acai bowls.’ And I said, ‘I know. I will kill it.’”
After her book came out in 2016, Ryan started selling her juices online. She followed with pop-up shops at festivals and events, and when one landed her on brick-paved Maryland Avenue in 2018, she loved its collection of small businesses so much that she leased a little space on the corner.
“I knew I wanted to have my own brick-and-mortar space and then I started to learn about what city planning and zoning wanted,” Ryan said. “Even though it was just a retail spot, it took me five months just to put a fridge in that spot.”
Infected by Buckley’s enthusiasm, Ryan saw a chance to move her juicers from a leased commercial kitchen into a bigger retail space. And there was a vacancy just down the street, at a spot where a coffee shop had closed right before the pandemic.
Exactly what Buckley said is a matter of contention. Ryan says the mayor and his staff told her that an exemption was possible. Buckley and his staff say — wearily because of Ryan’s persistence — they offered an extension, not an exemption.
Ryan persists. She exchanged texts, emails and phone calls with city officials as she worked through zoning approvals. All that passed, she said, without a clear understanding that no exemption was coming.
By the time she signed the lease in January 2022, Ryan said, she was still thinking some compromise was possible.
Stacey Fink and her husband, Jim Heywood, ran into the same requirement when they opened Rutabaga Juicery in 2015 in another part of town. They paid $15,000 to install one at the 1920s-era building they rented for their first location.
When they moved to a bigger building down the street a few years later, the owner agreed to cover the cost of the interceptor as a long-term investment in the property. In both cases, Fink said she studied the rules and knew what expenses were waiting.
“It’s a notorious extra cost to opening a restaurant when the building doesn’t have one,” she said. “It’s one you’re encouraged to ask about when you want to open one.”
At $85,000, though, Ryan’s interceptor required much more complicated work.
This is where Dave Miller comes into the story. He’s the only plumber who installs interceptors in the city.
“It’s a nasty job and no one else wants to do it,” he said. “People look at me funny when I tell them how much it will cost. I tell them, ‘Get somebody else to do it.’”
Part of “it” is the permits. You need one to open the sidewalk and one to install the interceptor. You need a third for connecting to the sewer system, and a fourth if the work goes out into the street.
It also involves antiquity. Maryland Avenue is one of the oldest streets in the state, and a dig has to go through bricks and layers buried below.
“It’s kind of one of those things that you don’t know till you dig the hole if it’s going to fit,” Miller said.
If it doesn’t fit, there are options. A few businesses have smaller interceptors than normally required, and a pub across Maryland Avenue from Rasa installed one in its basement 25 years ago after proving a sidewalk installation was impossible. Grease traps located under the sink are generally considered to be a failure.
No matter what the alternative might be, the city says Ryan has to dig to prove she can’t comply — that’s $10,000 to $25,000 — even though the pub already did.
The cost also is more than the interceptor, a concrete box between the drain and the sewer line where grease floats to the top for removal. She’d have to dig up her floors to add plumbing leading to the box, Miller said.
All through interviews with city officials, I kept hearing that the city of Annapolis is just enforcing the grease rules set by the Anne Arundel County Health Department, which has jurisdiction in the city.
Even if Ryan isn’t rendering bacon fat by the gallon, they said, vegan foods such as coconut oil and almond milk can be a threat.
Except none of that is true.
The county requires grease interceptors in its plumbing code, and officials can grant exceptions to businesses outside of the city, such as restaurants that show their menu makes them a low risk of fatbergs. But Annapolis is enforcing its own rules with regard to Ryan. Still, County Councilwoman Lisa Rodvien is looking for a workaround.
Coconut oil does make a mess in your pipes, but Ryan doesn’t use it. Almond milk, which she does use, has less oil in it than hand soap. Home garbage disposals are a bigger threat than a business like Rasa.
All it would take is for someone at City Hall to look up from their rulebook and admit that Ryan’s situation is unfair.
“I agree there should be a distinction,” said Fink, the city’s other juicer. ”There is a distinction in our menus.”
Ryan has another year on her lease, and in that time she hopes something will convince the city to budge.
Because she believes in the power of juice to make a change.
“Because,” she said, “I am doing my life’s work.”