Commune Café is closed
driven by unforgiving landlord

First as Café Di Sienna and then as Commune Café, the revered Pleasant Street cafe is closed after “being the place to meet” for more than 20 years.

Along with the pandemic drop in business, it was the dramatic, unwavering position of my landlord that has forced the closing of the doors.

It’s really sad; after all, the name of the place is Commune – a verb – and without us offering a place to do so, we were not the same destination. Also, without the cooperation of the landlord, committing to the expense of creating partitions needed to adhere to the distancing rules was just not an option.

I have a stack of emails, texts and mailed correspondence sent to my landlord before the pandemic and since. My effort to communicate was met with near total silence. Even my last-ditch effort of hiring an attorney proved fruitless - Dan Abdulla of Seacoast Property Management did not bother to respond to him either.

Unashamedly, I have not been able to pay rent, beginning in April, after the doors closed on March 20th. Since Commune reopened in late June, revenues were less than half of “normal,” which is not enough to meet the demands of a large, pre-COVID level rent, loan debt and payroll.  

Abdulla claims I am out of lease because I missed the 5-year notification mark of my intent to renew. When I was reminded at the end of February, I immediately responded yes to renewing and added the desire to discuss the terms of the next period.

In my mind, that is why there is an evaluation point - so you can discuss and negotiate terms for the next five years. We needed to agree on fixes needed to the systems and come to an understanding on the impact of the minimum wage changes on small businesses. In 2014 minimum wage was $8.00, and on January 2021 it will be $13.50, increasing to $15.00 on January 2023.  

It was at that point that the pandemic hit and things truly went south.

It is important to know that Massachusetts passed a law on April 24th establishing rules for landlord – tenant communication, and in late June Abdulla sent me a notice of my requirement to give him notification of non-payment of rent. It was here that I noticed he had changed the wording of the law! One method of reporting is to use a State form - essentially a profit and loss statement. The law says “may use [this form]”, yet Abdulla changed the word “may” to “shall” and referred to it again in later correspondence as the “state-required form”.

Tenants are required to report to their inability to pay rent due to COVID-19, but there is no requirement to provide financials. It is puzzling why Abdulla has perpetuated this standoff, as I have abided by the spirit of the law, before it was even a law, by notifying him that rent would not be coming, 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 a solution to Abdulla. I recognize that Abdulla’s complex real estate holdings narrow his options for mitigating his financial situation. To that end, I suggested that, together, we may be able to make use of the SBA loan options offered to small business owners. A reply to that offer was never received.

And the standoff goes deep.

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

And the hurt kept on coming.

Approached by a former and current manager desiring to purchase the business, I offered to take a small deposit while they worked out financing. Needing to protect myself, there needed to be a clause in their lease agreement with Abdulla saying if they did not get financing, I would get the business back. Not only did Abdulla reject the idea that I should be protected, he told them to “just wait it out until he is foreclosed on and you can just buy the equipment”.

I had just hoped to get something back. Certainly the 2019 value or even my initial investment and the remodel costs were not there, but there was viability for an owner-run operation. With very little time left, I listed the business with a broker.

It took Abdulla five days to respond to the inquiries of the broker saying a food establishment would be okay , and – get this - he would work with the buyer on a rent amount. Then the hammer came down when he added he would not complete the lease agreement with the buyer until all back rent was paid – no mention of COVID consideration and still no conversation with me. He did mention that eviction was coming on the 17th, the day the moratorium expires.

Again, I have been BEGGING for months to have a productive conversation with the landlord, but he turned it personal. Dan said he is willing to work with a new tenant but has not even talked with me. It does not matter to him that over the last five years I have paid him nearly $300,000.  

It’s a sad state of affairs.

In a microcosmic manner, this situation between a landlord and a tenant parallels the pandemic picture going on this country. As small business owners struggle, the large, well-established businesses and landlords, while taking hits, are not facing financial devastation. This is the basic display of the inequality between those well moneyed and those who are not.
 
As a small business owner, I have worked diligently to keep my businesses going and my personal finances afloat. I have received some federal grant money, which was helpful, but not nearly enough. And I have options to SBA loans, but the last thing I need is more debt!

Abdulla has many property holdings as well as a stake in Joe’s Playland - a million dollar-plus enterprise. The reality is, no matter what transpires between us, when it is all over, Dan will still have his building assets and his 100-year-old enterprise.  He may have a little more debt or have a little less cash in the bank or some other asset leveraged – but he will basically come out of this whole.

I, on the other hand, at 68 years old, am hit with a major financial setback with little time left to recover.