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article imageFamily-owned coffee shop had little recourse when kicked out Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Aug 18, 2013 in Business
Daly City - As real estate values shift, many long time tenants are pushed out by landlords who want to raise rent and get the highest amount possible. This is true not only of residential property but also with commercial retail space as well.
This past spring many in the neighborhood of Daly City (a suburb along the Peninsula, minutes south of San Francisco), were upset when a long-time establishment suddenly closed. The Westlake Coffee Shop had been a much-loved and frequented spot for locals. When news went out that the owners were being pushed out by a corporate real estate-property management company, even the Daly City Council tried to intervene. Despite best efforts, the beloved coffee shop was ousted from the Westlake Shopping Center on Southgate Ave.
Speaking on behalf of the Choi family which has owned and operated Westlake Coffee shop for the past 30 years, daughter Christina Choi said that previous reports did not convey the tremendous "heartache to my family." She mentioned that what Kimco Realty did was crush the Choi family's long-term investment in the American Dream.
"My mom Yoon Choi and my dad Moon Choi where devastated when Kimco locked us out of the cafe," she said. "Kimco put locks on the doors and we were not able to get our stuff," she said.
She also mentioned that while the Choi family owned the business of the Westlake Coffee shop, they did not own the building. "Before Kimco took over the entire complex about 10 years ago, my parents were always on very good terms with the landlord," she said. They paid their rent on time, etc. But after Kimco took over, things changed. When Kimco did not want to renew our lease three years ago and despite our trying to negotiate in good faith they gave us the run around," she said.
Kimco acquired the shopping center over 10 years ago in 2002. Since that time Westlake Shopping Center has undergone major renovations and has re-emerged as a synergetic community center that attracts many consumers from neighboring cities including San Francisco. The Center is anchored by TJ Maxx, Home Depot, Safeway, Trader Joe’s, Walgreens, and Cost Plus World Market. The Center also offers medical and office spaces with a wide range of availabilities that can meet the needs of any business — no matter the size, notes Nicole Hauscarriague, Kimco's director of Real Estate for the company's western region division.
The Choi family was trying desperately to negotiate a new lease, which as Christina explained, "was paid month to month." "In March," she said, "Kimco had said their lease ended on April 30." She also said that Kimco would not offer any options on the original location "On May 1, Kimco did an illegal lock-down of the restaurant," said Christina. She mentioned that while Kimco did send a letter, it was in error. The nationwide commercial property broker sent it to the wrong address and to the wrong business within the shopping center complex where Westlake Coffee Shop resides. "We had to get the Sheriff's department to help us, things got worse from there," she said.
In trying to reach Hauscarriague and others at Kimco — repeatedly, the response was limited. "Kimco does not comment on individual tenants (including former or prospective tenants)," said David Bujnicki, who serves as Vice President of Investor Relations and Communications for the company. "Kimco believes it maintains a professional and a positive discourse with all of its tenants," he said, "enabling the company to maintain a portfolio wide-occupancy level near 94 percent."
Obviously, the Choi family disagrees. Yet, what happened to the Choi family is happening in many places. For example, in San Francisco's Mission District long-standing businesses and establishments are being treated in a similar fashion. This was reported and commented on by the Mission's bilingual newspaper, El Tecolote and others. The mood of many well-established neighborhoods are changing and some people are speaking out.
As immigrants from Korea who arrived in the United States in the mid-1970's, Yoon and Moon worked very hard to establish themselves in their new country. They purchased the Westlake Coffee Shop, more than 30 years ago, taking over a landmark in spot that has been in operation for decades. "People know us, they have known this place for years," she said.
"Our customers have been so loyal to us and we are grateful," said Christina. Within the final two weeks of the coffee shop's abrupt and sudden closing, "over 800 people signed a petition," she said.
Yet, even with the help of the mayor of Daly City and members of the Daly City Council, there was little that could be done to negotiate with Kimco. With little recourse against such a large corporate entity, the Choi family felt helpless. Moon and Yoon tried repeatedly to appeal and were willing to relocate to another one of Kimco realty's commercial locations in the area. The other location option Kimco offered to them was not acceptable to the Choi family and the amount of rent asked for too high. Christina reiterated, "Kimco just kept giving my parents the 'run-around', avoiding their efforts to negotiate," she said. "Especially, a lease that was feasible and affordable to what they had once before."
"I and my siblings were born and raised here in the San Francisco area, we would help out in the restaurant. Westlake Coffee Shop was and is a major part of our lives," she said. Her parents want to pass their business on to the next generation of the Choi family.
"It is as if Kimco was in effect stealing my parents' investment in the American Dream." Anyone who has worked in the restaurant business or has owned a business will tell you, it is a lifetime investment. Countless hours, efforts and heart-felt dedication must be given to make it a success.
Christina pointed out that other retail shops in the same complex as Westlake Coffee Shop were also given the same type of treatment by Kimco. "It seems obvious that Kimco only wants big franchise businesses in their leases. 'Mom and pop' locally owned businesses are being pushed out," she said.
The past three to four months have been heart-wrenching and very difficult. While it is easy to become bitter about what happened. Christina and her mother and father are looking forward to the future. With the help of the Economic Development Dept. of Daly City, Christina said that her parents were able to find another location at Pacific Plaza on Junipero Serra Blvd. "The landlord there Pacific Plaza has been wonderful to us," she said.
The Choi's are aiming to re-open some time in the fall of 2013. "We will be eager to serve our loyal customers, offering the menu favorites," she said. "Yet, we also hope to win over new customers as we will be catering to the office workers of the Pacific Plaza complex," she said.
The Choi family will let the public know the official grand re-opening day as it draws near. "For now we must get things ready at the new location," said Christina. No doubt, The Peninsula Progress and other local news media to the area will be interested and watching, eager to get the news out to the community.
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