Metropolis: Wednesday, June27, 2002
Five-Star Stink

You don’t have to be a weatherman to know when you’re downwind of this East Side food business.


Curtis Mathis has lived on East First Street for a quarter of his 77 years. As he sat on the front porch of his white frame house early one recent morning, the daily newspaper still wrapped in plastic at his feet, something foul floated across the street.

“I’ve been living here 22 years, and it’s just like having a dog sleep in the bed with you,” he said.

John Kidd moved to the neighborhood three years ago and lives a block further downwind. “Sometimes I step out in my back yard, it’ll hit,’’ Kidd said. “It’ll take your breath away. You want to breathe, but you can’t.”

Bill Cole, who runs a nearby auto repair shop, says the air along this stretch of First Street smells “like someone blew out their commode.” That was actually Cole’s second description. His first, a colorful turn of phrase worthy of a George Carlin skit, was deemed unprintable in these pages — proof that even editors at alternative weeklies have standards.

But you get the point. Something stinks. While it’s not clear what’s causing the odor, the people who live nearby say it is coming from Five Star Custom Foods, Inc. at 3709 E. 1st St. Neighbors say Five Star is a meat-processing facility, but a company spokesman last week declined to say what type of food Five Star makes.

In a brief telephone interview, Steve Phillips said he wasn’t interested in “getting publicity. That doesn’t really serve our business ...or our customers.”

City officials said they have received repeated complaints about odor and grease-clogged sewers at the property over the years. The most recent: June 6.

“We have a rating of one to five,” said city spokesman Pat Svacina. This particular odor, he said, “was classified as five, the most obnoxious.” The five-star stink netted Five Star a municipal citation. And because this was the third incident at the address during recent years, Svacina said, the problem also was referred to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission.

TNRCC regional director Frank Espino said his agency is reviewing the case to determine whether Five Star should be fined. City inspectors “have already verified there is a problem, and we will now proceed with enforcement,’’ he said.

Five Star operates out of a complex of buildings surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire — a barrier that might keep the malevolent out but does little to keep the malodorous in.

Tarrant County Appraisal District records show the First Street real estate is owned by Bobby Cox Companies, Inc. , which has an office in southwest Fort Worth. The Texas Secretary of State’s records show that a company called Five Star Custom Foods Ltd. shares an office with the Cox companies and also lists Bobby D. Cox as its registered agent.

Cox was not available for comment, and the woman who answered the phone at his office referred calls to Jeff Bledsoe at Five Star. Bledsoe did not return a call placed to his office.

According to its web site, the Cox companies are a group of thriving consumer-oriented businesses: “Bobby Cox Companies Inc. is a dynamic family of service businesses dedicated to meeting the needs of today’s consumers. Under the guidance of its founder, Bobby D. Cox, the company has grown from its humble beginnings as a single coffee shop restaurant in Odessa, Texas, to a multi-concept organization operating over 30 businesses through the southwestern United States. From entertainment, restaurants, and telecommunications to oil and gas production, custom food manufacturing, ranching, and real estate development, the Bobby Cox Companies is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit of free enterprise.”

The web site doesn’t mention Five Star. Nor does it state whether a relationship might exist between Five Star and the Cox restaurants. The company has three chains sprinkled across West Texas — Taco Villa, Texas Burger, and Rosa’s Café. Only Rosa’s Café, according to the web site, has a presence in Fort Worth.

Matt Baun, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, said that Five Star passed his agency’s inspection just two weeks ago. “There were no violations under the federal meat inspection act,” he said.

In addition to the sewer smell, Cole said, the facility has also vented a substance with an ammonia-like stench that forced him to close his auto repair shop. For a while, he said, the substance spewed out of a pipe and over the fence that separates his property from the plant. He doesn’t know what the substance was but he said it stripped the paint off a customer’s car.

No shrinking violet, Cole has collected signatures on a neighborhood petition and twice marched over to the Five Star compound to complain. A company official first told him it sounded “like a personal problem.” When he complained a second time about a year ago, he said he was told, “If you don’t get out of here, we’ll call the police.”

Phillips said Five Star is subject to regular monitoring and complies with regulations. “You have to be in compliance’’ to be in business, he said. “Some people don’t like the smell of Italian sausage cooking. Some people don’t like the smell of certain food products.”

Five Star’s neighbors also say the area has been plagued with sewers clogged with grease. City officials said they responded to just such a complaint in January.

“They had a spill into the sewage system,’’ said water department spokeswoman Mary Gugliuzza. “We ended up having to do some additional line cleaning. We issued them some citations.’’

She said the company cooperated, corrected the problem, and agreed to pay some $2,500 in clean-up and monitoring costs.

Several businesses have operated at the address over the years. The plant is located on what’s known as the Standard Meat Company addition. Property records show that the Cox companies acquired the land in 1999. Gugliuzza said Five Star started operations at the site about two years ago.

Even as neighbors complain about how the property smells, its owners are looking to take on additional tenants. Mike Lewis, whose name appears on a “for lease” sign in front of the property, said much of the complex is “functionally obsolete’’ and suitable now only for storage. Five Star, he said, has a “state-of-the-art’’ system for processing whatever it is that it makes.

While the city has repeatedly cited Five Star for odors and sewage release, Cole said he’s not confident the problem will ever be fixed.

“They’re telling me grease is a problem at all these place, and more than likely it’ll never get solved,” Cole said. “It sure is rank this morning. Yesterday was just as bad.”

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