NORWALK, Conn. – Three bids have come in for the restaurant in Oak Hills Park.
Eviction proceedings have begun on current restaurateurs Amar Haouari and Vincent LaForte, Oak Hills Park Authority Chairman Jerry Crowley said Thursday.
The Authority is seeking approval for a sit-down bar in the restaurant building, although that is prohibited in its lease. A new operator for the restaurant may not initially pay the $6,800 a month that Haouari and LaForte have been paying, Crowley and OHPA member Bill Waters said recently, commenting that the new restauranteur will have build a bar and install new kitchen equipment.
LaForte and Haouri are two months behind on their rent and owe $10,000 in fines, Crowley said Thursday.
Haouari declined last week to comment. The pair’s attorney, Abe Heisler, did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him.
Haouari and LaForte should have received their initial eviction notice on Wednesday or Thursday, Crowley said Thursday, explaining that the eviction will be effective Jan. 15, the last day of their lease.
“I am assuming they will not pay the half month in January,” Crowley said.
Seven of nine RFP respondents recently met OHPA members at the park to get a look at the restaurant, but LaForte held the door shut, Waters and Crowley said after last week’s Common Council Land Use Committee meeting.
“We decided not to fight in front of all these people so we did it outside in the cold,” Waters said.
“We chose 10 o’clock in the morning because they weren’t open, there was nothing going on that day,” Waters said. We thought we would walk people through the building.”
Waters and Oak Hills Golf Course superintendent Jim Schell said they gave LaForte and Haouari two weeks’ notice although the lease only says 24 hours is required.
“We’re finding out from that people were talking to that they think that $6,000 month is very high,” Waters said.
LaForte and Haouari have objected to the Authority’s plan to reduce the restaurant space in the building to make room for a pro shop. In November, they said that when they refused that plan, the Authority started giving them a bad time.
Crowley and Waters on Dec. 6 told the Land Use Committee that the pair ran up fines by not being open when the lease said they should be, resulting in the May meeting in Mayor Harry Rilling’s office that Haouari and LaForte referred to in November.
LaForte’s version of that story was that he and his partner were “a little late” paying the rent in March and were subsequently notified that the rent was “arbitrarily” being raised from $6,800 to $9,000, he said.
The pair have an option for two-five year extensions on their lease, but Authority members say they gave up that option in the mayor’s office. Rilling in November confirmed that account.
Minority Leader Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) asked during the Land Use meeting if that agreement was in writing. Waters said it was not, but Rilling and Assistant to the Mayor Laoise King were witnesses to the verbal agreement.
“They are in default now,” Waters said, indicating that the lease is no longer a factor.
Waters on Dec. 6 said potential bidders were offering other ideas, such as a percentage of sales instead of rent. Some were offering $4,500 a month or $5,000 a month.
“They have to build their own bar,” and invest money in kitchen equipment, Waters said.
Haouari and LaForte in November spoke of their investment in kitchen equipment, claiming they have lost the $150,000 they invested upfront.
Three bids came in on Thursday’s deadline, Crowley said, calling that good as, “We were looking for at least three.”
Details were not available, other than the names of the bidders, provided by Norwalk Purchasing Officer Sharon Conners:
- Turn Services LLC (proposed)
- Operators of the Dry Dock Bar & Grill and Joe Gallo
- Peter Redei, Constantina Skeadas and Peter Skeadas
Purchasing is “putting together the packages and hoping to get them to us tomorrow or Monday,” Crowley said, promising that all the information will be posted on the city’s website for the public to review.
The Authority has requested a change to its lease, hence the visit with the Land Use Committee.
“We are finding now, that reaching out to other restaurateurs to take over the food and beverage business that without a bar they don’t want the business. So we can’t attract anyone,” Waters said. “…Some were reluctant to even bid on the RFP because they don’t know if they can even have viable business on that property. So, one of the things we are looking for from the Common Council is to help us renegotiate our lease to allow things like a sit-down bar, in some fashion, which would be mutually beneficial to everybody.”
The opposition to a bar stems from “the old Oaks” bar, which was “sort of seedy” and unsafe, as people almost fell through the floor, he said.
The Oaks’ was run by people who were “not good restauranteurs,” Hempstead said.
“It did become a real big problem. it was more a problem after hours, late at night, they were open bar hours, 1 or 2 o’clock,” Hempstead said.
When the new building was constructed in 2004, “the local residents didn’t want a biker bar, which it’s not, it hasn’t been for 13 years,” Waters said.
The hours for a bar would be limited by the lease, and, “We want to make the restaurant be able to be competitive with any other restaurant in the city of Norwalk,” Waters said, explaining that the bidders weren’t looking at 11 p.m. or midnight or 1 a.m., but “whatever normal bar hours are in Norwalk and in Connecticut;” 9 to 10 p.m. on weekdays and maybe 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
“The contract says have to be there at 5:30 in the morning,” Crowley said, calling that a “tremendously long day.”
“They have been good neighbors to the neighborhood. So, it’s really worked out,” Crowley said.
“Given the location and neighborhood is not the kind of place people are going to hang out unless something special is going on,” Waters said. “They are not expressing desire to have a late night hang out.”
Other proposed changes to the lease involve “little things,” like the mobile beverage cart, which is used to serve beer on the course, Waters said.
“Technically, according to the lease, that’s not supposed to exist either,” he said. “But, we’ve had it for a number of years, we don’t see any reason why – I mean, we would be the only golf course in America that doesn’t have one.”
There also might be a provision in the renegotiated lease to allow an outdoor tent for functions, but in accordance with the noise ordinance, Waters said.
“So, it’s really just a sit-down bar, beverage cart, outdoor tent and hours of operation,” he said.
RFP bidders are putting in two proposals, one with a bar and one without a bar, he said.
Changes to the lease would require a public hearing, Land Use and Building Management Committee Chairman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) said.
The goal is to have the restaurant building reconfigured by April 1, Waters said, explain that the plan is to take 620 square feet of the existing grill room and convert the bar there into a pro shop; the retractable wall that is there now would be made into a permanent wall, with glass on the upper part and a chair rail-height wood, so that the golfers in the pro shop see the restaurant business.
Swing doors would invite golfers into the restaurant during the day, a cross pollination, he said.
The Zoning Commission’s Plan Review Committee last week indicated no objection to the plan.
The Authority has been asking Corporation Counsel to change the lease since February, Waters said. Although Authority members have sought to simplify the existing lease from 64 pages to 12, they’re now asking that the city expedite the approval of a bar so that the work can be done, and address other lease issues later, Crowley said Thursday.
The Authority owes the city $2 million, a payment of about $131,000 a year, Crowley said. The rent reduction to Haouari and LaForte has added up to about $100,000 that did not come in.
“It’s no secret. That building was built for $2.5 million, we had it appraised, and its appraised for about $1 million,” Crowley said.
Golf course revenues are up from last year, Crowley and Waters said.
Finance Director Bob Barron said at Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting that OHPA did not make its full $131,000 payment in September.
“They gave us $52,000 and then they owe us $79,000,” he said, attributing the deficiency to revenue lost while the park was being renovated.
OHPA members plan to pay the rest by June, at the latest, and promise to give an update in January when they have better idea of how they are weathering the winter, Barron told Council members.
From June to October, the golf course brought in $854,000 and expenses were $631,000, he said, and “Clearly, the course is bringing in more revenue than they are spending, for this period report, they are actually performing better than in the prior year.”
As for Haouari and LaForte, “It is supposed to be a family restaurant,” Crowley said. “They signed a lease to be a family restaurant and to serve the golfers, it’s right in the lease. A couple of years ago, they said, ‘We don’t want to do that, we want to do catering. We will be around to service lunch and dinner but if we have a party, they’re the first priority. It’s not working. That wasn’t a good business plan.”
With new operators, “the first thing is to you know take a hit, maybe the first year or two, get the service working and get people to now it’s there,” Waters said. “Get a good established business in there and then hopefully, if they’re good enough, they make enough money, we make enough money.”