Commune Café is closed driven by unforgiving landlord

First as café di sienna and then as communal café, the revered and friendly street café is closed after “being the meeting place” for more than 20 years.

Coupled with the drop in business due to the pandemic, it was my landlord’s dramatic and unwavering position that forced the doors to close.

Reading: Commune cafe newburyport ma

it’s very sad; after all, the name of the place is commune -a verb- and without us offering a place to do it, we were not the same destination. plus, without the owner’s cooperation, committing to the expense of creating the necessary partitions to comply with distancing rules simply wasn’t an option.

I have a stack of emails, texts, and correspondence sent to my landlord before the pandemic and since. my effort to communicate was met with almost total silence. even my last ditch effort to hire a lawyer was unsuccessful: dan abdulla of seacoast property management didn’t bother to reply either.

Shamelessly, I have not been able to pay my rent, as of April, after they closed the doors on March 20th. Since the commune reopened in late June, revenues have been less than half of “normal,” which is not enough to meet the demands of high rent, loan debt and pre-Covid-level payroll.

abdulla claims I don’t have a lease because I missed the 5 year notice mark of my intent to renew. when they reminded me at the end of February, I immediately answered yes to the renewal and added the desire to discuss the terms of the next term.

In my opinion, that is why there is an evaluation point, so that you can discuss and negotiate the terms for the next five years. we needed to agree on the necessary solutions for the systems and to reach an agreement on the impact of the changes in the minimum wage on small businesses. in 2014 the minimum wage was $8.00, and in January 2021 it will be $13.50, increasing to $15.00 in January 2023.

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That’s when the pandemic hit and things really went south.

it is important to know that massachusetts passed a law on april 24 that establishes rules for communication between landlord and tenant, and in late june abdulla sent me a notice of my requirement to notify you of non-payment of rent. It was here that I noticed that the wording of the law had changed! One reporting method is to use a state form, essentially a profit and loss statement. the law says “you may use [this form]”, but abdulla changed the word “may” to “shall” and referred back to it in later correspondence as the “state required form”.

Tenants must report their inability to pay rent due to covid-19, but there is no requirement to provide financial information. It’s puzzling why Abdulla has perpetuated this standoff, as I have complied with the spirit of the law, even before it was law, notifying him that he would not pay rent, providing P&L’s, and literally begging for a meeting.

in the spirit of cooperation, and recognizing that there are two sides to the story, i offered abdulla a solution. I recognize that Abdulla’s complex real estate holdings reduce his options to mitigate his financial situation. To that end, I suggested that together we make use of the sba loan options offered to small business owners. a response to that offer was never received.

and the confrontation runs deep.

In an effort to increase revenue, I did my best to drive more business and win back customers by implementing online ordering and requesting outdoor seating. Strangely, Abdulla refused to grant permission for the use of two parking spaces for outdoor dining, citing concerns for second-floor tenants. After I went to see the tenants and received their clearance, Abdulla refused to budge!

and the pain kept coming.

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I was approached by a current and former manager who wanted to buy the business, and offered to take a small deposit while they worked out the financing. needing to protect me, there had to be a clause in his lease with abdulla that said if they didn’t get financing, i would get the business back. Abdulla not only rejected the idea that it should be protected, but told them to “just wait until they run it and you can buy the equipment.”

I was just hoping to get something back. certainly the 2019 value or even my initial investment and remodeling costs weren’t there, but there was feasibility for an owner-managed operation. With very little time left, I put the business up for sale with a broker.

Abdulla took five days to answer the broker’s questions saying that a food court would be fine and, get this, he would work with the buyer on the rent amount. then the hammer came down when he added that he would not complete the lease with the buyer until all back rent was paid, not to mention the covid consideration and still not talking to me. She did mention that the eviction would come on the 17th, the day the moratorium expires.

again, I’ve been begging for months to have a productive conversation with the owner, but he made it personal. Dan said that he is willing to work with a new tenant, but that he hasn’t even talked to me. he doesn’t care that in the last five years he has paid her nearly $300,000.

It’s a sad state of affairs.

Microcosmically, this situation between a landlord and a tenant parallels the image of the pandemic in this country. While small business owners struggle, large, well-established businesses and owners, while taking hits, don’t face financial devastation. this is the basic sample of the inequality between those who have money and those who do not. As a small business owner, I have worked diligently to keep my business and personal finances afloat. I received money from a federal grant, which was helpful, but not enough. and i have sba loan options but the last thing i need is more debt!

abdulla owns many properties as well as a stake in joe’s playland, a million dollar plus company. The reality is that whatever happens between us, when it’s all over, Dan will still have his construction assets and his 100-year-old company. you can have a little more debt or have a little less cash in the bank or some other leveraged asset, but basically you’ll get by.

I, on the other hand, at 68, suffer a major financial setback and have little time left to recover.

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