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Wanted: A new restaurateur for Oak Hills Park

The Oak Hills Park restaurant building. (File photo)

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.

10 comments

John ONeill December 21, 2020 at 6:40 am

A couple of things:
1) Alex Knopp built an albatross. He may have many good traits, but a restaurant builder is certainly not one of them.
2) They need to bring atmosphere to that restaurant. The deck is nice, but the inside is sterile. As someone who’s been in a few bars since turning 16 a million years ago, start with atmosphere and really good simple food. It’s not rocket science. There are many successful “19th holes” in Fairfield County. No reason this one can’t be successful,in spite of Knopp’s poor planning.
3) Let’s hope Knopp’s prodigy who’s up in Hartford doesn’t do to Norwalk High School what Alexander has done to Oak Hills Restaurant.

Michael F Discala December 21, 2020 at 8:10 am

Now is not the time if a qualified operator is secured terms would sound like city gives a non recourse loan of at least $250000 free rent for 12 to 18 months and low rent also fund a addition to serve catering events

Ginny Waters December 21, 2020 at 10:43 am

Golf course restaurants hardly ever turn a profit. Ever. They are necessary amenities and should be provided facilities for only the cost necessary to maintain the building, not as a moneymaker for the course. These rents are outrageous.

stuart garrelick December 21, 2020 at 11:25 am

The definition of insanity is continually doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Perfect example is the Oak Hills restaurant situation. I have been a member since the course opened and if memory serves me the only tenant who appeared to be making money was doing much of it illegally. Time to do a realistic evaluation and stop catering to unreasonable demands shackling the restaurant.
The setting for a restaurant is beautiful and various renditions of the restaurant have had acceptable food and ambiance, including the most recent tenant. The Grill was our Covid safehouse for dinner on the patio and surprisingly excellent entertainment. Closing with no hearing and great haste doesn’t sit well with me. AND THE HASTE LEFT ME STUCK WITH A $100 GIFT CARD. Would the authority like to make good on that?
And now, added to all other restrictions we are again saddling the restaurant with an overseer. Based on previous experience maybe the Authority should also be added to the list to be overseen.

Peter Franz December 21, 2020 at 11:55 am

What a hot mess. So after multiple failures the OHPA is deciding to get further into the restaurant business, when all indicators are showing it should not throw good money after bad?

Putting COVID aside for a second, the restaurant business is hyper competitive and you need to do far more than provide a “TGI Fridays” kind of menu to bring in a Fairfield County audience. The Clubhouse Grill very much had a TGI level menu. Not nearly good enough. Now, putting COVID back into the conversation, it’s going to be a while before people are going to be willing to sit side by side in a closed room. Restaurant profitability is going to take a long road, and a lot of creativity to be what it used to be.

Why does Norwalk continue to support this OHPA nonsense?

Piberman December 21, 2020 at 1:47 pm

With a 5.5% City budget increase this year enabling a well functioning Oak Hills restaurant is beyond our City’s abilities ? Many of us remember dozens and dozens of enjoyable dining over the years. Maybe the Authority needs a “restaurant consultant” to make it all happen again !

B.Gorlan December 21, 2020 at 2:23 pm

This was pulled from the November Minutes. He noted that one thing they should not be doing is responding to customer complaints. Mr.DePalma noted that they had historically overmanaged the park. Yes you have overmanaged the park to a point that no one knows whos in charge.

John O'Neill December 21, 2020 at 2:33 pm

@Ginny — An Egyptian friend of mine has done pretty darn well at E.Gaynor Brennan in Stamford…Why? Because he and they know what the heck they’re doing…If they don’t remodel the inside of Oak Hills and turn around the quality of food just burn the damn place down. It’s ridiculous..With the right atmosphere I and many others would eat there once a week…That is assuming the new gas tax and income tax “reform” by Dems doesn’t take my discretionary income away….
NON readers — Those that voted for phantom legislators and their friends will have to ante up more of their hard earned money next year…If that doesn’t tick you off you’re not breathing!!

Patrick McMahon December 23, 2020 at 10:39 am

I try, I really do try to support OHPA, but then they go and do something like this. Mr. Dickens seems absolutely clueless about what it takes to run a successful public golf operation. While OHPA keeps crying poor they are going to hire a “General Manager” for what? where is this money coming from? Does he think an outside vendor, who will be paying OHPA rent will answer to a GM? NO! If the restauranteur is paying rent it is their business to run! A smart restauranteur would offer breakfast, lunch, snacks, beverages and dinner to what I can only assume is over 40k golfers every year. I don’t understand how it can be so difficult to get a tenant and for that tenant to be successful! They do it at both courses in Stamford and they do it well! They do it in Trumbull, Ridgefield, Greenwich, Fairfield, even the restaurant at run down Fairchild Wheeler does well…What is going on with OHPA? Incompetence at the highest level. I feel badly for the employees who have to answer to these people.

Its really easy Mr. Dickens, you don’t need a “General Manager” you have a golf professional who does his job, a superintendent who does his job, a controller who does his job, they answer to the Authority, SIMPLE. You work with a tenant and find a way to make them successful and you get your rent money, everyone is happy! Except Paul Cantor but we’ll discuss him in another post. I just cannot comprehend how a golf course with the traffic that Oak Hills gets cannot find a successful restaurant partner. It starts with OHPA, fix it! You wanted to be on the Authority now fix it! Everything else seems to be going well for you, you have what appears to be a solid staff leadership team in place, don’t micromanage them and FIND A TENANT!

Peg Drenckhahn December 27, 2020 at 5:45 pm

We have tried to support the restaurant and Joe is a really nice guy. The problem for us is decor.
I always felt like I stopped into a catering hall in golf attire. They need to turn that place into a “clubhouse grill room” Golfers aren’t going to feel comfortable in a big open pink restaurant, it needs a more pub style decor. It needs a sit down bar. By letting the neighbors handcuff you they built a totally inappropriate facility for a golf course. It’s never going to be well used by golfers feeling like they are walking into a wedding reception…
Unfortunately it sounds like there’s no money for a renovation so the course is stuck with problem and it’s always going to be the issue.

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