NORWALK, Conn. – The Oak Hills Park Authority has ended another relationship with a restaurateur on a sour note, having opted not to renew its contract with Joe Montalto of Garnet Management Group.
“It was a tough decision, but we decided to not continue with the current vendor at Oak Hills for the restaurant,” Oak Hills Park Authority (OHPA) Chairman Carl Dickens said Thursday. “Because in the long, three, four years that we’ve had that relationship, it hasn’t worked, hasn’t worked for them hasn’t worked for us. We have not been able to get the revenue we need for rent, because the vendor can’t generate the business to pay the rent, at the amount that we need and deserve.”
Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) member Troy Jellerette called the decision “very disappointing.”
“This is a COVID year, restaurants are closing every day, you had a tenant there. He was the only guy in this day that responded to the RFP last year,” Jellerette said Dec. 8. “I mean unless you know something that we don’t, somebody’s looking for a restaurant business during this period, I would have been happy if you just kept them in for another year.”
The Authority, under previous management, has long had a troubled history with the restaurant space created in 2005 under then-Mayor Alex Knopp. Restauranteurs Amar Haouari and Vincent LaForte left in March 2018, after the Authority declined to renew their lease. Their tenure at Oak Hills had always been tense. It ended with an eviction notice and their accusations that the Authority was racist.
In June of that year, Authority members said their new restaurant operator wasn’t paying rent. Montalto wanted a 20-month lease but the City wouldn’t go for it and is paying “zero to start” with negotiations expected the following January, then-OHPA member Bill Waters said.
Haouri and LaForte had initially paid $9,881 a month but after several years the Authority agreed to lower the rent to $6,000. They continued to complain it was too high.
Every operator thinks their rent is too high, then-Chairman Jerry Crowley said to NancyOnNorwalk. Later that year, Crowley and Waters said it was impossible to rent the restaurant space without a sit-down bar.
OHPA budgets online indicate that Montalto was paying $2,350 a month. Montalto’s space was smaller than that used by Haouari and LaForte, as the Authority remodeled the building to include a pro shop.
Shari Brennan, who does not use the course herself but is wife to a golfer, said it was sad to hear that the Authority wasn’t renewing the lease. Montalto had put in “a lot of new equipment, chairs, tables etc.”
“Management worked very hard to accommodate golfers, private parties and many like me that enjoyed getting together for great burger or salad and glass of wine. Even had a holiday luncheon there with my gal friends in 2019. The place was beautifully decorated for a winter wedding reception to be held later that evening. The requirements for liquor license were strictly adhered to. The neighbors that were against it, had nothing to complain about,” Brennan said in a Saturday email.
OHPA treasurer Joe Andrasko said at the Dec. 8 BET meeting that the decision to oust Montalto was strategic and “driven by two things” – “the kind of management culture that we want to have amongst the staff, and revenue.”
“We did not think when we look at other comparable municipal courses with a restaurant facility, that we were getting quite market rate, and we didn’t think that we would actually kind of be able to realize that market rate under this structure,” Andrasko said.
The Authority plans to hire a general manager, he said.
“This is somewhat akin to the position that was in place, although maybe, I think three or four years ago before my time on the Authority, but you know, we think that it’s the right approach to take,” Andrasko said. “Now, given that we kind of have a diversified food services, we have a bunch of different contracts with tenants and a couple of other things that, you know, need to be managed under one roof by one person.”
After hearing that explanation, Jellerette said at Thursday’s OHPA meeting, “We’re still not sure why in a COVID time when restaurants are closing every day, why the restaurant was not at least afforded another year to try to – I mean, I wish you guys luck getting another tenant for the season.”
Dickens spoke of a reorganization and a full-time general manager. “He” will oversee Head Golf Professional Paul Alexander, Course superintendent Jim Schell and Controller Mark Gartner as well as a food and beverage person, Dickens said.
“We’re still looking for that person for the General Manager’s position,” he said.
The restaurant has drawn complaints this year, Dickens said.
A man speaking in the public hearing part of the meeting complained about noise. “That music just comes right down number seven, and it’s very loud. … I hear that music like it’s in my backyard,” said the man, identified only as Joe B.
“We’re embedded in a neighborhood,” Dickens said. “There are a lot of things that we want to do with the golf course that if we continually have the angst amongst the neighbors that we have on, some things will never be able to do. So it’s not good, you know, to take our neighbors on.”
Plus, Dickens said he and Andrasko had breakfast at the Grille “several months ago, that was not a good thing. And I had the photos to prove it.”
Breakfast was an issue with the previous tenants also, with Authority members complaining about quality and availability.
Brennan disagrees about the quality of Montalto’s offerings.
“The menu was always tops and food great. Many options for golfers that were enjoying lunch during rounds, dinners on the patio during these difficult times was always COVID safe,” she said.
The Authority has a restaurateur as a member: Babar Sheik of Sand Wedge Deli & Catering is on the Authority’s restaurant committee.
“We’re not looking for a new tenant, we’re looking for a partner who will be overseen by our new general manager,” Sheik wrote Saturday. “Hopefully the partner is someone who is successful in the restaurant industry. Joe, as you know, did not have a food industry background and it showed often. Joe was also not transparent about many issues including live events which led to several complaints from neighbors. These are the main reasons we decided to make a change.”
Other items went into the decision to try another model, Dickens said, during Thursday’s meeting.
“The model that we looked at was to go back to the way things are set up at the golf course, prior to 2017 when there was a revisionist plan laid out, to get rid of a person that was the executive director at the time and try a different model,” Dickens said. “That didn’t work.”
Former Executive Director Shelley Guyer’s five years working for the Authority ended in March 2017.
People don’t understand how much work Alexander, Schell and Gartner put in, and, “We’ve got to make some changes,” Dickens said.
Dickens said he couldn’t reveal names but, “I had a conversation today with the gentleman who is quite successful in the in a food and beverage restaurant business wants to meet me personally to talk about how he wants to take over Oak Hills. And I can’t tell you if that would come to fruition. That could be a really good thing, unlike what’s been seen there before. So my plan is to try to get with him tomorrow, which I don’t think it’s going to happen or to have lunch with him at the restaurant he owns on Saturday.”
Brennan said that Dickens “seems to have his own agenda as to who he wanted to get into that spot once the lease was up. Joe and his team did not even have a chance…. I along with many others feel that Joe was not given a fair shake. The public was not aware that there was a change being made, until it was too late to lend support and defend the current teams right to renew the lease.”
Babar Sheik volunteers for NancyOnNorwalk.