Hot doughnuts from the back door of an Oak Bluffs bakery may be a popular late-night delicacy, but a hard-line decree from the town's board of health this week slammed the door shut.
Acting in response to a complaint from a neighbor, just weeks after the issue had also been discussed by town selectmen, the health board voted unanimously Tuesday to ban all back-door sales at Martha's Vineyard Gourmet Cafe & Bakery, saying the practice posed "potential public health hazards."
Board of health member Linda Marinelli was adamant: "This just isn't the way things are done. Every business sells from the front door."
The crackdown marks the latest skirmish is what is turning into a summertime battle of the doughnuts. On one side are the bakery owners, Janice Casey and Rita Brown, and their legion of fans - signing petitions and penning letters, bent on keeping the longstanding tradition alive.
On the other side is a neighbor named Joe Vera, a 76-year-old retired New Bedford lawyer, who has written scads of letters to selectmen and the board of health, complaining about the back-door doughnut trade for years. For years there was little action in response to his pleas - but now both boards are flexing regulatory muscle.
Initially, in a letter dated June 17, Oak Bluffs selectmen ordered the bakery to cease selling food from the back door, which opens onto a parking lot on Kennebec avenue.
Then, a week ago, at a meeting that featured impassioned pleas in defense of doughnut and fritter-selling in the wee hours, bakery owners reached an uneasy truce with the selectmen, who decided to enforce a 12:30 a.m. closing time for doughnut sales but said they lacked authority to meddle in the back-door trade at other hours.
At Tuesday's meeting, discussion turned feisty as two board of health members, the health agent, the bakery owners and Mr. Vera all squared off for a debate that was, at times, as hot as a Fryolator and as sticky with details as a pile of dough.
Mr. Vera, dressed crisply in seersucker pants, a short-sleeved navy shirt and a pair of navy canvas boat shoes, stood up and read aloud from his latest missive to the board of health. While his main line of attack when he spoke to selectmen concerned noise violations, Mr. Vera tailored his complaints Tuesday toward issues of public health.
"The screen door is left open during the time sales are made," he said. "Since the door is next to the BFI dumpster, which attracts flies, there is no barrier to insects entering the kitchen and food preparation area."
He went on to cite other concerns, arguing that employees who were preparing food were also handling "dirty money" and that customers were entering the kitchen area from the back door.
"You wouldn't approve Linda Jean's selling sandwiches from the back?" he asked Mrs. Marinelli and board of health chairman William White.
Board members pressed the bakery owners to explain why they couldn't simply sell from the front of the store.
"It's a special thing people do. Thousands of people say they want the back door to stay open," Ms. Casey told the board.
She said it's a matter of convenience and safety to sell doughnuts out the back door because the kitchen is jammed with bakery workers, carrying hot trays of muffins and croissants to and from the ovens and tending the Fryolators.
Having employees navigate the kitchen to bring doughnuts and fritters to the front of the store, rather than right to the back door, she explained, would be risky. "Somebody's going to get burned," she said.
Both Ms. Casey and Ms. Brown arrived for the meeting wearing shorts and their bakery T-shirts, emblazoned with words on the back: "Back Door Donuts. Get ‘em while they're hot."
But Mrs. Marinelli continually hammered at the back-door issue. "I understand tradition, but the board of health is not dealing with tradition," she said. "I cannot see any logical reason why the back door would be utilized."
Ms. Brown grew impatient. "It seems you have made up your mind, with all due respect," she said to Mrs. Marinelli.
Then Ms. Casey pointed to other takeout businesses downtown where food is prepared in close proximity to the outdoors and to customers. "Neptune's Grill is wide open there," she argued. "Giordano's is wide open where people come in. How is that different from what we're doing?"
"They don't sell out a back door," shot back Mrs. Marinelli. Asked for an opinion by Mr. White, health agent Shirley Fauteux weighed in, but she offered board members a mixed message. "What we're looking at here is potential," she said.
She said food should not be sold straight from a kitchen, but neither Ms. Fauteux nor other board of health members answered Ms. Casey's question about how that was different from Giordano's take-out pizza operation.
Ms. Brown then spoke up again, saying, "The staff that's preparing food does not handle money."
She suggested some measures to mitigate the health concerns of board members. "We could install a window in the door that comes up and down," she said.
Ms. Fauteux softened: "I'd like to find a way to make it work."
Mrs. Marinelli, however, had dug in. "The only way it will work for me is if they take it to the front door." she said.
"It's the same thing as Giordano's," Ms. Casey said, trying the same tack with no luck.
Mrs. Marinelli then motioned to issue a cease-and-desist order against all back-door sales from the bakery. With board of health member Sari Budrow absent, two votes made the decision unanimous.
"This has been going on for years and years," said Mr. White. Asked later whether the back-door practice violated a health code, board of health members and Ms. Fauteux could not cite a specific bylaw or code.
Elsewhere on the Island, back-door restaurant sales have been popular for many years at the Home Port Restaurant in Menemsha. Chilmark's health inspector, Sylvia Yeomans, told the Gazette this week that the Home Port simply installed screen doors to make sure the public was kept separate from the kitchen area.
"You can't have the public be inside the kitchen," she said. "So they come to the door and the window, and that's where they have the transaction."
Meanwhile, back at the Oak Bluffs bakery, they are keeping the back door closed, pending an appeal. It puts on suspension an Island tradition that dates back 20 years, according to some accounts.
"Everybody was berserk when we closed it down" for a brief period before the selectmen reconsidered on June 22, Ms. Casey told the Gazette this week. "This is Fourth of July weekend. We're trying to manage this."
They may even open up the front door and see how things go. But you don't have to tell Ms. Casey: She already knows it won't be the same.