Mitten Pizza owner Jamie Zichterman (right) takes an order form Denise Denton of Middleville on Monday. Denton bought a pizza, then wrote a check for $100 toward the pizzeria's nearly $20,000 electric bill.
Jamie Zichterman was looking for a new business opportunity a little more than three years ago when he spotted a craigslist.org advertisement for a pizzeria that was for sale near Gun Lake.
“I came down, looked at it, the price was right, negotiating went well, and we decided to go for it,” Zichterman said. “I had delivered pizzas for a couple of different places. I was around pizza, I knew how to make them.”
Just like that, he was the owner of Mitten Pizza LLC on M-179.
Despite some ups and downs, business was going well for the pizzeria. Its “pickle pizza” became a hit with customers. Zichterman had thoughts about expanding to additional locations.
Then, a little more than two weeks ago, everything changed.
Zichterman got an $1,800 bill from the pizzeria's power provider, Boyne City-based Great Lakes Energy. He had already been paying Great Lakes monthly on power generated from one meter on the property, but apparently did not know about power coming from a second meter there.
“I said, 'what the heck is this?' I called them up, and they did some digging,” he said.
Not long after, the company called back. Not only did Mitten Pizza owe the $1,800 for the previous month on that second meter, the business also owed for power from that meter from the past year. In the end, the total bill added up to $19,795.74. It's a bill Zichterman says he can't pay.
“They said there was a meter there that hasn't been reporting, and now it's been reporting,” Zichterman said. “Essentially, it was giving me electricity for free. It isn't fair to them. I get it. But it's not my fault.”
In a Facebook post Monday, Zichterman said he was prepared to close Mitten Pizza effective Nov. 1 if a resolution to the billing issue can't be found.
The possibility of the business closing its doors has sparked an outpouring of support from the local community. A friend of Zichterman's, Joel Pease, launched a Go Fund Me page to raise funds toward paying off the bill. As of 2 p.m. Wednesday, $3,315 has been raised, with 86 people donating, and more than $600 of additional donations had been made inside the pizzeria, Zichterman wrote in a Facebook post Wednesday.
Meanwhile, another fundraising event is planned for Friday and Saturday, Oct. 11-12, at Mitten Pizza. The event will run from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and will include a raffle of various items.
“My dad was part of a small business, and seeing a small business go down just because of an electric bill? C'mon. It's not their fault,” said Kathy Berzley, who has lived on Gun Lake for nearly two years.
Berzley, her husband, Willie, a local drag racer who competes at West Michigan Sand Dragway, a drag strip in Mears, and their daughter Jessie, have gotten involved with the fundraiser, which is being organized by Henry Steffes, an agent for Keller Williams Realty.
Denise Denton, an inspector at Bradford White in Middleville, stopped in Monday afternoon to buy a pizza. Denton recalled that Mitten had delivered free pizzas to United Auto Workers members who were striking against General Motors in Grand Rapids several weeks ago. She took out her checkbook and said, “I want to help.” She wrote a check for $100.
“I can't thank you enough,” Zichterman said in response.
Lacey Matthews, a spokeswoman for Great Lakes Energy, said she could not share details on Mitten Pizza's account, citing privacy reasons. She said the company is happy to work out payment arrangements with their customers in cases where they have a large bill.
“Billing adjustments can be the result of things such as finding equipment failures in the field, meter tampering/theft or incorrect data being submitted and later corrected,” Matthews said. “Billing corrections aren’t charging for anything extra, but rather billing for service used.”
Matthews noted that sometimes billing errors are in the favor of the customer and, in those cases, Great Lakes goes back up to three years on the bill. When the error is not in favor of the customer, the utility only goes back one year and “then, in addition, may work with the customer directly to further adjust the bill,” she said.
Zichterman says he has no issue about paying for the power he's using from both meters, and is hopeful that he and Great Lakes can find a resolution to the billing issue. He has retained an attorney to help him resolve the problem.
“I don't want to shortchange anybody. I don't want them to lose $1,800 a month in revenue. But somebody messed up along the line and it's not Mitten Pizza's fault, it's not my employees' fault and it's not the community's fault,” he said. “It's Great Lakes Energy's fault. That's all there is to it.
“It's the cost of doing business at this point. You operated at a $20,000 loss this year, you need to report it and move on and do the right thing.”