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Juniper Cafe owner says decision to sell due to ‘tumultuous relationship’ with Kingston’s Tett Centre

Juniper Cafe owner says decision to sell due to ‘tumultuous relationship’ with Kingston’s Tett Centre
Canada
Juniper Cafe owner says decision to sell due to ‘tumultuous relationship’ with Kingston’s Tett Centre

The city stepped into a tenant dispute between the Tett Centre and the Juniper Cafe, who were claiming the centre s board of directors was trying to push them out.

Global Kingston

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The City of Kingston may have found a compromise to keep a popular cafe operating at the Tett Centre, a non-profit city-funded arts centre.

The possible closing of the Juniper Cafe stems from a bitter dispute between the Tett Centre’s board of directors and the owners of the cafe, who kicked up a stink last week claiming the board was trying to shut them down.

In an email sent to a distribution list, which was then posted by others on social media on Jan. 16, one of the owners of the cafe, Amber Thom, explained that she and her business-partner Jamie Hodges were being “terrorized” by the board of directors.

“We are being forced out of the Juniper Cafe at the end of the month, at which time we will have to lay off our 10 employees and will then be unemployed ourselves,” Thom says in the leaked email.

Nowhere in the email — which prompted a public outcry and an online petition that received over 5,000 signatures — did it mention the owners of the Juniper Cafe had already told the Tett Centre they intended to sell the business.

This was not revealed until a city staff report was released late Friday evening after city staff gathered to deal with the dispute.

“[The] owners of The Juniper Cafe told the Tett Board in August 2018 that they no longer wished to operate the cafe and were seeking a purchaser,” the report released after the meeting read.

Thom said in an email to Global Kingston they wanted to sell the business because they could no longer deal with the animosity between them and Tett Centre’s board of directors.

“We came to the Tett board last summer with our hands up, tired of the tumultuous relationship we had with the board, executives etc. We spoke of our plan to sell the business to our staff or another operator who could carry on this successful business into the future.”

Although the leaked email from Thom claimed the business’ 10-year lease had been cut short and the Juniper Cafe owners were being “forced out” by the Tett Centre’s board of directors, the report laid out a different version of events.

When the Tett Centre reopened after significant renovations in 2015, Thom and Hodges’ company Epicurious Catering Inc. was granted a lease in the arts centre from September 2015 to July 2017, with the option to renew that lease for a further three years.

Several issues arose between the owners and the Tett Centre’s board of directors, like rental disputes and arguments over garbage pickup and air conditioning, issues also mentioned in Thom’s leaked email.

“We are nothing short of exhausted from the constant challenges and harassment from Dave Kerr [chair of the board] and Nadine Baker [Tett Centre facility manager], all the while trying to maintain a professional and positive relationship with the community,” Thom said in the leaked email.

Despite those comments, Kerr told Global Kingston the issues listed by Thom had been resolved.

When the cafe’s lease was up in July 2017, the city report said significant negotiations between the Tett Centre and the owners of cafe led to an 18-month lease renewal, which was meant to end Jan. 31, 2019 with no option to extend the lease.

But several months into that second-term lease, in August 2018, the report claims Thom and Hodges told the Tett Centre they no longer wanted to operate the cafe and were looking to find a buyer to take over their lease.

According to the city, since Thom and Hodges had no intention to run the cafe anymore and the lease had only six months left, the board started looking for new operators to run the cafe.

The report went on to explain that this process was delayed, since Thom and Hodges brought forward a potential buyer in September 2018. The Tett Centre then offered a three-month lease extension, something Thom had asked for.

The staff report claims that Thom’s buyer denied the Tett Centre’s offer and the cafe owners stated they wanted to continue to look for buyers.

Thom says their buyer was a staff member who wanted to keep the Juniper Cafe alive. She said the staff member had to pull out because his investor did not want to be involved in the “bad blood” at the Tett Centre.

Following that denial, in November, the Tett Centre said they were going to open the search for new cafe operators, but told the Juniper Cafe owners that they would still be able to bring in their own buyer. They also assured the offer for the three-month lease extension would remain.

According to the report, when the Juniper Cafe owners came back to the Tett Centre with another buyer and a new proposal — they wanted to renew the lease for two years following the three-month extension and asked the Tett Centre to negotiate another lease with the new owner.

“This proposal was a significant step in a different direction than the discussions that had taken place to that point,” the city report read. “The Tett Board was not in a position to accept this and reiterated it was open to a three-month extension and to negotiate a new lease with a new owner.”

The city report claims that Thom and Hodges made no movement on the three-month extension offer but did say they had a potential purchaser lined up. But since this buyer had not been in touch with the Tett Centre, the board decided to open up a call for other operators interested in setting up in the Juniper Cafe’s place.

In early January, the city report says that Thom and Hodges’ new buyer finally came forward, but the board of directors refused their buyer’s application.

“It was at this point the Tett board indicated it was too late in the process for a new potential respondent,” the report claimed. Thom confirmed that indeed, their second buyer was not accepted.

It seems to be this final denial from the Tett Centre that prompted the email response from Thom, which was then leaked.

“A few days later, council received an email from the current owners of the Juniper Café presenting their view of the situation, and it appears similar information was shared by the owners to a wide variety of individuals and has been shared on various social media platforms, gathering significant public and media attention,” the city report reads.

Public outrage over what seemed to be an unfair closing of a well-liked cafe sparked the Friday meeting between city staff, where a resolution was met in the form of the staff report.

In the end, the staff recommended the Tett Centre extend the Juniper Cafe’s current lease until the end of April, 2019, which will allow them to mentor the new owners of the cafe. The new owners could then be offered a three-year lease, which could be renewed afterwards for two years.

Nevertheless, Thom says the owners of the Juniper Cafe were not consulted on that report.

“We have not yet met with any city official since the letter was circulated last week,” Thom said in an email. She will be meeting with a city official to discuss the three-month lease extension on Tuesday.

The staff report will be presented to Kingston city council on Tuesday to examine. The city did not identify the who the potential owners of the cafe, but whoever they are will have to agree to the city’s new terms.
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