While Café Habana owner Sean Meenan scores a splashy interview with BlackBook, another Nolita long-timer, Luciane Gilan, is in trouble. Earlier today word hit the blogs that CB Richard Ellis is attempting to find a retailer for the 800-square-foot corner space that for the past fifteen years has housed her neighborhood fixture Café Colonial. When Gilan spoke to Grub Street just now, she sounded like she had all but given up: “Our city is giving us more laws and regulations,” she stammered. “Everything’s harder. People are more mean. It’s just not fun anymore.” Gilan believes her rent tripled thanks in part to new neighbor Keith McNally, and she may just retire when her lease expires May 31.
According to Gilan, her landlord came to her last October claiming that another tenant was interested in the 30-seat space, and that she would have to go unless she could match their $30,000 offer. Currently, Gilan says she has a “triple net” lease that finds her paying $10,000 per month plus real-estate taxes and the water bill (this ends up being almost $13,000). “I’m not lying to you,” she says. “I’m really struggling.” Gilan says she asked the landlord to understand that she was going through a divorce that involved splitting her assets, but the landlord wasn’t interested in talking. In November, a “For Lease” sign went up over her restaurant and her request that it be taken down because it was hurting business was ignored. Now she says the space is being listed at $20,000 (“one block from Whole Foods,” the listing trumpets), but Gilan says even that is too much for her. “I even called another person who owns a lot of restaurants — he came and looked at our place and our size and he said, ‘It’s insane — you can’t make a living with $20,000 rent.’” (On the other hand, Gilan says she has heard that her new neighbor Keith McNally pays $30,000 per month in rent for a much larger space).
There’s little doubt in Gilan’s mind that her landlord’s motives have much to do with Pulino’s: “I know people who know [the landlord] and they told me what’s going on. He said, ‘McNally is opening a place and he wants to bring people over and we might get a high-end boutique.’” So does she resent her new neighbor? “I think that he is genuinely a good restaurateur and he does good — the problem is that the landlords think, Oh, because he’s a good guy he’s going to bring a lot of customers around. So people get greedy and make rents go up. I don’t think we, as people who live here, gain anything by having these kinds of things here. Because you know what, who’s going to shop in a high-end boutique? I can’t and any local people can’t.”
So will Café Colonial open at a different location? As of now, no. Gilan has looked at a 2,000-square-foot space on Elizabeth Street that’s going for $10,000 (she’s wary of moving more than a block away, since she might lose customers), but she says that building a kitchen alone would cost her $200,000 that she doesn’t have. “To open up a place like my small restaurant right now in Manhattan you need $400,000,” she says. “Now with regulations and Bloomberg, everything has to be up to code — the sprinkler system, the plumber, the bathrooms You need a certain amount of commercial gas to come inside, you can’t just work with home gas. I have to get a special license, and that can take two or three months to get all those permits.” Gilan says she’s also vexed by credit-card fees, late fees on sales-tax payments (her accountant recently had to straighten out a $1,000 fine), rising Con Ed costs ($4,000 per month), and a litany of paperwork (for a sidewalk café, for instance) that requires legal help.
She tells us, “I got to the point where I said, ‘I’m quitting.’ Maybe I’ll change my mind, I don’t know.”