A lack of a fire protection system, zoning arguments and a rocky relationship with the town of Trafalgar led to the end of a local restaurant.

Southern Comfort Cafe at 200 W. Pearl St. in Trafalgar closed permanently this summer after the Indiana State Fire Marshal issued an emergency closure order on May 12 to shut the restaurant down for not having a working fire protection system.

The restaurant was located inside part of the former Indian Creek Elementary School and had been operating there since 2020. The owner, James Lochard, also lived in another section of the school with his family.

Lochard said he tried to remedy the situation with town officials and the fire marshal, and received few answers. He was unable to get the restaurant reopened and it closed permanently.

Town officials also were planning on revoking Lochard’s variance to live in and operate the building, saying he had long been in violation of zoning standards, separate from the fire system issue.

Most town officials involved have stayed quiet on the issue — apart from some comments made in public meetings — and declined interviews about the situation with the cafe. They deferred questions to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, who did the inspection, but the office also declined an interview.

What happened to the cafe

A citizen complaint triggered an initial inspection by the state fire marshal in May, according to Jason Ramey, a Trafalgar Town Council member.

Lochard was caught by surprise by the inspection, and was given no warning, he said. The initial inspection took place on May 5 and was done by Inspector Michelle Knoy with the IDHS, according to the inspection report.

During this inspection, 34 fire and safety violations were found, including not completing several required regular inspections and training, misuse of extension cords and decorative lights, and a lack of cleaning an oven hood. The building was not closed at this time, and Lochard was given 30 days to fix the violations, according to the report.

The May 5 report mentions no emergency violation of a working alarm or sprinkler system, and simply says it needed to be “monitored” on a fire watch.

Following the May 5 inspection, Lochard said Knoy returned and issued an emergency closure on May 12, with no prior notice. Lochard and everyone inside had to vacate the building. If they needed to re-enter, they would have to notify the town to be let inside.

Lochard said at the time of the closure, he was taking care of most of the violations from the first inspection.

“I had 30 days to correct everything. But then all of a sudden, they change their mind and come in and shut the building down,” Lochard said.

He said the fire alarm system had been offline when the inspection happened; he had turned it off because it had previously activated when there was no fire.

Less than a week after the building was shut down, the alarm system was restored, but the sprinkler system still would not pass inspection. This was confirmed by Trafalgar Fire Chief Mark Dunn, who reported the building’s closure to the Trafalgar Town Council at a May 19 meeting.

Lochard believes the town of Trafalgar is partially responsible for upgrading the suppression, or sprinkler, system.

He said he was told by the company, RSQ Fire Protection, that there was a problem with inadequate water pressure coming through the two-inch pipes to the school. Updates to the pipes would be needed to get the sprinkler system to pass inspection, he said.

The building operated for years as a school from 1939 until 2016, and some of its systems needed large improvements. Lochard questioned how it could have passed inspections before this, saying this issue was out of his control.

“This is a huge problem that involves the city … It’s out of our hands because you can throw money at the problem, but it all comes down to if the city can supply it,” Lochard said.

However, Dunn and other town officials denied Lochard’s claims about the water supply. Lee Rodgers, Trafalgar’s former utility superintendent, said he was not aware of that issue.

Dunn also said he was not aware of the pipe issue, and said the building passed all fire inspections up until now.

“I can confirm that while the building was utilized as a school, all required inspections were completed on time and successfully,” Dunn said in an email.

Dunn declined further questions because the inspections are being handled by the state fire marshal at IDHS, and the town and fire department have no involvement with that.

Despite the town’s claims against Lochard, IDHS spokesperson David Hosick said in an email that there was an issue with the town water supply. But they also said Lochard needed to make the upgrades.

“The closure order was issued based solely on the life safety violation of no working fire protection system. It is true there is an issue with the city supply side, but IDHS has not been provided any documentation to show the owner has made the necessary upgrades,” Hosick said.

IDHS declined to do an interview to answer further questions about the inspection.

RSQ Fire Protection confirmed the company did assist Lochard with attempting to fix the 34 violations listed by IDHS. However, they would not confirm any issues with water supply.

“We did the best we could to assist, but ultimately there were bigger issues he had to deal with,” said Amy Stewart with RSQ.

Rocky relationship with Trafalgar

Prior to the restaurant’s closure in May, Lochard said he had a history with the town of Trafalgar not liking him. He believes the town did not want him to remain in business, he said.

Lochard originally opened the Southern Comfort Cafe in 2015 at a different location on State Road 135 in Trafalgar. Issues started to arise with town officials once he moved to the former school in early 2020.

When it was originally sold, the building was rezoned to commercial use. Lochard began renting to own it in January 2020 from the owner, Brian McDonald.

Town records show Lochard’s business was a topic of discussion at eight Trafalgar plan commission and zoning meetings over two years, for various reasons.

Minutes from the January 2020 meeting detail that Lochard moved his family in to live in the building without the town’s permission, and he needed to request a zoning variance.

Following that meeting, Lochard was mentioned in three more meetings because he had not requested a variance from the town yet, according to meeting minutes from August and September 2020. The minutes detailed “patience was thinning” with him.

For Lochard, he said the town was being difficult in granting what he wanted for the zoning variance, and the town inspector, Tim Guyer, was not fulfilling requests for months to inspect his building to get the variance.

Guyer, however, said he did every inspection asked of him, and said the town was fair to Lochard, despite his alleged non-compliance with zoning standards.

“He was not in compliance from the very beginning, they granted him a variance to rezone even though he wasn’t in compliance,” Guyer said in an email.

Lochard eventually was granted a zoning variance in March 2021, for the commercial space and two residential dwellings, including his own, according to town records. It was recorded at the May planning commission meeting that the building also passed inspection, with just three minor infractions.

Later on in the year, rumors began to circulate that Lochard was renting out more rooms than his variance allowed, according to minutes from a December 2021 plan commission meeting.

Lochard denies this, and said he never violated the variance. He only had one other tenant and never rented other rooms out, he said.

“From the time I moved in, ‘til the time we left, nothing that changed as far as planning,” Lochard said.

This was brought up again by the Trafalgar Town Council on May 19 this year, after the building closed for the fire system. A complaint was sent to the town council asking Lochard’s variance be revoked for the building.

Council members expressed concern and alleged that “no one knows how many people live there.” The council voted to allow the town board of zoning appeals to revoke the variance, if Lochard was able to get the building open again.

“We now know that he has more people living in there,” said council member Kyle Siegfred during the meeting. He is also president of the town planning commission, but declined interview requests from the Daily Journal.

Lochard’s fiance, now wife, was also operating an at-home daycare in their home, and two other businesses, Red’s Gym and a spa were operating in other parts of the building.

“The problem we have is, let’s just assume that he finds a way to finance repairing and getting it approved. If they (IDHS) release the building back to him only on their violations, he still has whatever unauthorized occupants and businesses taking place that we need to be paying attention to and deal with,” Ramey said during the May 19 council meeting.

Ramey later said in an interview this month that he has nothing against Lochard, but the town wants its businesses to follow zoning rules. He was not directly involved with the town’s ongoing issues with the cafe, though, he said. But he does not believe Trafalgar should be blamed for the restaurant closing.

“The town had nothing to do with them being shut down, that was the fire marshal being called. Our issues lie solely with the improper rental within the zoning of that building,” Ramey said. “We can’t turn our heads when things aren’t being done properly.”

Guyer also said in an email that it was Lochard’s “own negligence” that shut the restaurant down. He declined to answer more questions about the inspections or alleged zoning violations.

“It was his own negligence to not pay the fire suppression company. That brought the state back into play and shut him down. The town and the state are only looking to keep the people safe.”

Moving on

Lochard said he eventually gave up on reopening the restaurant in Trafalgar, and since found a new place for his family to live.

He also found a new way to earn income, outside of the restaurant business. He and his wife recently opened a liquidation store called A Lil Piece of Southern Comfort in Franklin.

In this business venture, Lochard purchases truckload pallets of merchandise at a discounted wholesale price from places like Amazon, Walmart or Home Depot and resells them.

They sell products online on Amazon, eBay and Facebook Marketplace. People can also shop in person at a large storage garage Lochard is leasing at 930 Hurricane St. in Franklin.

He decided to pursue this instead of opening another restaurant with the state of the food service industry and worker shortages now, he said. He had considered opening a store while still operating the Southern Comfort Cafe at one point, but he never got around to it.

“I’d always wondered about pallet sales and things because when we did the restaurant, for example, a lot of our stuff came from Bulldog Liquidators,” Lochard said.

Business has been successful so far. Items are selling fast on Amazon, and people are visiting the storefront.

The store has a wide offering of products, from furniture and decorations to clothes and baby products. All prices can be haggled, Lochard said.

As for the former school and restaurant property in Trafalgar, the building is for sale by the owner.