A Landlord Undoes a City Success Story

COMMENT

October 09, 1994|By BRAIN SULLAM

When a restaurant has customers at every table who are talking, laughing and lingering over their food and when the owners of the restaurant are making money, you should have a successful business. But Michael and Jessica DeCesare had something they didn't count on -- a landlord who made unreasonable demands on a new business.

So after 78 days in business, the Green Chameleon, Westminster's newest restaurant, closed its doors.

"It breaks my heart to leave," Ms. DeCesare said three days after the business closed. "We met a lot of nice people downtown, but we couldn't put our financial future in jeopardy."

She and her husband are sitting in their new walk-up apartment located three blocks west of the building that housed their restaurant. Unpacked moving boxes sit in the center of the room. Clothes are piled on chairs. On the floor of the kitchen sits a box of lemons and a case of bread, the only visible reminders that this young couple had been in the restaurant business.

"Right before we closed, I told one of the waitresses that our restaurant turned out exactly the way I wanted. We were the new place to be. A nice group of people had become our customers, and they were all having a good time," Ms. DeCesare said.

The DeCesares, who are in their mid-20s, decided from the beginning that they wanted to operate a restaurant that was different. They didn't want to offer the typical "fried chicken and mashed potatoes," according to Mr. DeCesare.

Instead they wanted a restaurant that had a limited, but interesting menu, served only fresh food and provided a comfortable ambience where people could linger over coffee, conservation and dessert.

They succeeded beyond their expectations. On the night they ** closed, virtually their entire supply of food was exhausted by the end of the evening. When a couple wandered in for a 9:30 p.m. dinner, Mr. DeCesare told them that they had only two choices because everything else had been cooked and sold.

On the business side, the restaurant was realizing a profit even though it did not have a liquor license, according to Mr. DeCesare. During its short life, the restaurant generated enough revenue to pay for several thousands of dollars of improvements made to the property, to cover all supplies and salaries and replenish the DeCesare's depleted savings account.

Why did they close their doors?

The DeCesares said it all had to do with their landlord: Gerald "Buzz" Berg, the demolition magnate of Baltimore.

They said he offered them a lease that did not make financial sense. The DeCesares, with the help of their lawyer, tried to modify the lease to their liking, but Mr. Berg, according to them, rejected all their changes.

Mr. Berg refused to discuss the lease. "It is none of the public's business," he said.

He admitted that downtown Westminster lacks vitality and that vacant buildings contribute to its run-down appearance.

However, Mr. Berg said he has no plans for the building at the moment.

The building was vacant for a year before the DeCesares opened their restaurant, and it appears the building may be vacant for another year.

The DeCesares' experience is a good illustration of the difficulties involved in Westminster's downtown revitalization effort.

The DeCesares had the vision, energy and drive necessary to get a business going on Main Street. They lacked the capital to buy a building and had to rent one.

As a result, they were at the mercy of a landlord who had no interest in seeing their business succeed or in contributing to the downtown renewal effort.

"Mr. Berg tried to play hardball with us, but he didn't win this game," Ms. DeCesare said. "We decided that we wouldn't be pushed around anymore."

If Westminster is to have a genuine revival of downtown, the landlords must be partners in the effort. Trying to milk the maximum amount of rent out of these properties will guarantee further failures. Unless property owners understand their role -- and their vested interest -- in bringing business downtown, there won't be much meaningful redevelopment.

The DeCesares haven't given up. They have a commercial Realtor looking at two different downtown locations. They are convinced that they should locate their restaurant on Main Street and not in a suburban mall.

They are also calculating what it would take to buy a building this time because they don't want a landlord to hold so much control.

They plan to approach some banks for financing. If that doesn't work, they may have to turn to some investors.

Mr. DeCesare said he has no trouble seeing the potential of his restaurant. "I go out to Route 140 and see all those cars driving by. There are thousands of customers out there, and somebody should grasp the fact that some of these people want to eat in a good downtown restaurant," he said.

Despite the temporary setback, the DeCesares are not bitter. They plan to do in-home catering this winter. They also plan to get involved in civic activities.

"Maybe it was all for the better," Mr. DeCesare mused. "We had an idea, but we really didn't know whether we could do it. We proved to ourselves we could."

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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