Food court deal leaves a bitter taste

May 11, 1999|By Michael Olesker

A NEW LOOK is coming to the food court at Owings Mills mall: Call it nouveau ghost town. Call it the inevitable, crushing response to the arrival of McDonald's, which devoured everything in its path. But call quickly, because four food stall proprietors who used to make a healthy living at the mall have vanished in recent days, and a fifth will be gone by this weekend.

They've all gone broke -- five of 'em, all in a row as shoppers stroll along the food court -- leaving the look of a gaping mouth with five teeth knocked out. This, in the middle of a mall that once seemed to sparkle and now seems to have its lights flickering, run by a company that once seemed a model of corporate humanism and now looks sneaky and uncaring.

Ocean City Fries, Burke's Bagels, Talkin' Turkey, Jerry's Sub Shop and the Chicken & Seafood Express all are longtime Owings Mills mall occupants, and all have lost their shirts since the Rouse Co., operator of the mall, quietly worked out a deal to bring in McDonald's in June.

"The joke's on Rouse," Gerson Mehlman said yesterday. He's the attorney for Ocean City Fries and Burke's Bagels, which have filed a multimillion-dollar suit against the Rouse Co., claiming the company defrauded them into renewing their leases while secretly negotiating with McDonald's and simultaneously denying that any such talks were being conducted.

"They wanted full occupancy in their food court while they negotiated with McDonald's," Mehlman said, "and it backfired on them. Real estate must be a tough business." Rouse Co. officials have refused to comment on the lawsuit, scheduled for Baltimore County Circuit Court in October, and on the negotiations that brought McDonald's to the mall.

Yesterday, one of Mehlman's clients, Steve Bond, walked around his Ocean City Fries stall and prepared to clear out Saturday. He's the only one of the five food tenants left. Talkin' Turkey and Jerry's Subs cleared out six weeks ago. The Chicken & Seafood Express closed 10 days ago, and Burke's Bagels closed Friday, after a session in Baltimore County Rent Court regarding failure of Burke's and Ocean City Fries to pay rent. "Well, that was just going through the motions," Bond said. "We knew we were months behind in our rent. Seven months, I think it is. We're not contesting that. We'd pay it if we had it, but we haven't got it, not since they moved McDonald's in and ate into all our profits. From the time McDonald's moved in, my profits dropped $6,000 a month. How do you stay in business with those kinds of figures?"

"You can't," said Susan Leeming. She said this last week, standing at her Burke's Bagels counter. Nobody was around, although across the food court a long line had formed at McDonald's. "Our business dropped at least 35 percent from the time McDonald's moved in. Over there, during lunchtime, you can't even get by the McDonald's line.

"And we knew it would happen, which is why it's so infuriating. We kept saying to Rouse, 'Are you sure you're not bringing in McDonald's?' Because that was the rumor when we were renegotiating our lease. Everybody in the mall heard it. We wouldn't have re-signed if we knew they were coming. And they kept telling us, 'No, no, we're not talking to McDonald's.' "

As Leeming went through her recap, a woman walked past and asked, "Are you opening Monday morning?" She would not; Burke's Bagels closed Friday.

"Heartbreaking," said Leeming, who has run the place for her mother, Lois Burke, who opened the business 13 years ago. "What are we supposed to do now, stand on the corner with a can?"

Ironically, Owings Mills mall has been juiced up in recent months by adding stores and a movie multiplex. Two years ago, food court tenants were told to remodel as part of a general sprucing up.

Steve Bond says he spent $50,000 on his Ocean City Fries renovations. Susan Leeming says her mother spent $80,000 on Burke's Bagels, taking out a second mortgage on her house to do it. Then, when McDonald's arrived in June, "business was off $20,000 in the first 90 days," Bond says. Leeming has similar figures.

"So that's it," Bond said yesterday. "We owe the back rent, and we can't pay, so we're out of here. I put all these years into making this work, and I watched all these people around here working long, long days and evenings. And we're all wiped out.

"You know, this food court's like a pie. There's only so much business, which means you can only cut the pie a certain number of ways. But then you have a McDonald's come in, and their appetite's bigger than anybody's. So there's nothing left for us. We're done. I owe my bank about $43,000 now. I'd never be in this position if only Rouse had told us the truth."

Pub Date: 05/11/99

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