The Tennessee Department of Health has ordered the owners of the recently opened private membership restaurant Plate & Bowl in Fairfield Glade to shut down the operation because they do not have a state permit.

Co-owner Bethany Luchetta said she and her husband, Vince, would not comply. They contend they have a constitutional right to operate the restaurant without government interference.

“We’re standing our ground as far as remaining private,” Bethany said in an April 26 telephone interview with the Chronicle.

The Health Department issued a “letter of closure” to the owners requiring them to “cease operations,” Bill Christian, associate director of the department’s Office of Communication & Media Relations, wrote in an email to the Chronicle in response to the newspaper’s inquiry into the restaurant. 

“Plate and Bowl has failed to apply for a legally-required permit and has refused inspection requests from the Tennessee Department of Health,” he wrote.

Bethany disputed the department’s claim that the restaurant was not inspected. She said the restaurant was inspected during the first of three visits from Cumberland County Health Department employees. There was no inspection report on the state’s website where all such reports are posted for public viewing.

In other visits, the county health department served the owners documents to try to get them to convert the restaurant to public domain under government jurisdiction, Bethany said. The Luchettas declined. 

During at least one visit, Fairfield Glade police were on standby in the event there were hostilities. As it turned out, Chief of Police Kate Self told the Chronicle, there was no disturbance.

After receiving the state’s notice requiring them to stop operating the restaurant, the owners replied by letter that they would not seek a permit, Bethany said. She added that they sent copies to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department and Fairfield Glade Police Department to keep them informed of developments following an arson threat the restaurant received earlier.

Bethany said the arson threat came from someone with a Crossville telephone number. Self said she turned the arson complaint over to the county sheriff, who has an arson investigator. The Chronicle could not determine through the sheriff’s department by press time whether it was investigating.

The Luchettas opened the Christian-based restaurant at the Village Green Mall on April 13 — at the location of the former Community Table restaurant — as a private “social club” so they could avoid what Bethany called “government overreach” such as forced closings that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It kind of gives you extra security as far as keeping your doors open in the event of another shutdown,” Bethany said in a telephone interview April 24. “We went this direction, and a lot of other places are doing it.”

A private membership restaurant is an unfamiliar concept to many here. Restaurants that require membership typically are in major cities and entail a membership fee. Plate & Bowl has no membership fee.

A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said it had no information on whether such restaurants are a growing trend.

A membership agreement that diners must sign before they can eat at Plate & Bowl explains the restaurant’s principles, objectives and legal positions. Bethany said it specifies that the owners can exercise their constitutional right to seek “remedy” against anyone trying to force the restaurant to go public. She said the clause is intended to be a notice to the government.

The restaurant has had a rocky start primarily because of the membership agreement, which originally contained a clause that members would be liable to pay “compensation” of $1 million plus $100 a minute should they be in the restaurant representing any entity that enforces government regulations. The owners would have considered that a “trespass.”

That stipulation was a “tongue in cheek” clause, Bethany said. She acknowledged that the language was not included in a subsequent revision of the agreement because of considerable “pushback” in the community. 

Bethany said some people have interpreted the agreement to the point where it has been “blown out of proportion in so many ways,” such as believing they could be sued if they gave a bad review of Plate & Bowl. She said the agreement has no such restriction and that members have the right “to say whatever they want” about the restaurant.

The Luchettas wrote in an April 17 posting on the restaurant’s Facebook page and social media site Nextdoor that online “slamming and shaming have fueled a fire of fear” about the operation and that they have been slandered, “lied about, and bullied for opening an eatery with a structure unknown to this area.”

Adding to the controversy for Plate & Bowl was that the original membership document identified the restaurant as an auxiliary of a group the owners called “Alchemy Christian Ministries.” Bethany said she and her husband have been in ministry their entire lives and that he liked the word “alchemy” because of his work as a cook. 

Bethany said they later learned that the word was connected to a “sorcery, witchcraft, cult thing in California that people pinned us to,” so they removed the reference from the membership agreement. 

“It was naive on our part to not understand that that name was associated with something else,” she said. “We were completely innocent in it.” 

The Luchettas understand, as they wrote on their Facebook page, that the restaurant “won’t be for everyone.” But Bethany said the restaurant had more than 175 members as of the week ending April 22. She said she was pleased with that.

“Minus the negative pushback and the crazy stories people are making up about us, we still have had a good amount of people showing up and understanding what we’re doing and (are) supportive of what we’re doing,” she said. “And that has been an encouragement.”

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