Photo by Sarah Bennett
Rafi Khan sat on a wooden bench in City Place outside the new location of his Fresh Kabobs restaurant located on 4th Street. As workers inside tile floors and wire outlets in anticipation of the reopening of his restaurant, all Khan can do is wait.
From the bench, you can see his recently shuttered shop across and down the street, a closure preceded by Chuck E. Cheese's lease-signing with City Place that displaced three restaurants--Fresh Kabobs, Milana’s New York Pizzeria and Mitaki Restaurant--at the beginning of the month.
The loss of business is an obvious concern for the owners who aren’t generating revenue to pay themselves or employees, but it’s the threat of losing customers that’s haunting Khan.
“Money comes and goes,” Khan said. “But customers, once they leave, they’re gone and they don’t come back.”
Khan, whose location had been open for three years, closed August 12. He and the other restaurant owners were originally told that their new homes would be operable the day they were forced to hand over their keys. The new locations being offered by City Place, however, were previously retail shops and are still under construction to make them restaurant-ready.
TEC Property Management, which owns and oversees the leases at City Place, is giving the businesses they've displaced one free month of rent for every week they’re forced to be closed in addition to financing the costs of renovations to their new locations. The three restaurants are also being moved closer to Pine Avenue, to what some consider a more desirable location.
Though the move could have a possible increase in foot traffic for the restaurants, the potential benefits of the new locations are something that the owners feel can’t be quantified for certain until they’re back up and running.
Adriel Fasci, owner of Milana’s, said TEC promised that the transition to the new location would be seamless, but Milana’s has been closed for a week as of Wednesday and the move from a stand-alone building at the old location to one that now includes residential units overhead has compounded the efforts to get things up to code and pass fire inspections. Each time an inspection is failed, the re-opening date is pushed back.
Fasci echoed the fears of Khan when it came to the possibility that customers might not return after the businesses reopen. Both feel customers might just see that they’re closed and move on to the next open restaurant, which will be detrimental to the foothold that the two men have shared for past few years.
“Our business--all of our businesses--have had a momentum,” Fasci said of the three currently non-operational restaurants. “Well, you can’t stop that momentum and then open up the door two or three weeks later and expect it to start up again. No way.”
Additionally, there are the costs that aren’t so obvious in a move: Fasci had to change canopy colors and his store sign because it wouldn’t fit on the wall allotted to him at Milana’s new space. Khan, in hopes of retaining his employees, is paying their weekly wages out of his own pocket since there is no revenue being generated. He says the gesture of free rent is a nice one but stated that marketing expenses to retain his customer base might be three times the rent he would’ve paid.
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Both men knew that it was stipulated in their lease that the landlord could move them at anytime at City Place's expense. What they’re not at peace with is how long it’s taking to erect their new restaurant spaces. Khan wishes that the City could be me more lenient, letting the businesses move forward and work through minor code violations that keep pushing back the completion date as long as they’re not a danger to the community or their patrons.
“City officials are coming in and trying to things very strict and they’re not considering the fact that we have no job right now,” Khan said. “Our employees have no job right now and the customers we’re losing everyday.”
After being neighbors for several years at their old locations, Khan and Fasci felt that they’d earned the loyalty from their landlords that would’ve spared them relocation due to a corporate entity moving onto the block. And now that they will be closed for at least another week, customer loyalty will be tested as regulars are being forced to try other eateries in Downtown.
“Customers have short memories,” Fasci said. “They forget about you.”
TEC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.