Fauna restaurant could open in June... finally
2 years of disputes, court battles delay Fauna opening; comparatively easy sailing to opening day at MēNa
Over the years you've probably seen a few restaurant storefronts with brown paper lining the windows, their owners eager and waiting to open for (and hopefully be loved by) a hungry public.
Sometimes weeks of construction and menu planning go by. Sometimes, a few months. And sometimes, it takes a heck of lot longer than that.
How about more than two years?
That's exactly the situation Fauna owner Jon Svazas finds himself in. He signed a lease in May 2012 for a space at the corner of Bank and Frank streets, and planned on opening in October of that same year. But disagreements and legal battles with the landlord — Ahmed Abou-Gabal of Velika Realty Inc. — have pushed the date back over and over again.
"It's been two years of my life," Svazas told me last week. "I've got a wife and two very young kids, and all I want to do is cook food for people in the space that I designed and that I built. It shouldn't be too much to ask, but it is what it is at this point."
Svazas says he's now hoping to open this June, more than two years after signing the lease. But after everything that's happened, he's not getting his hopes up too high.
The court battles
The first hurdle came in the summer of 2012, according to documents I reviewed at the courthouse on Elgin Street, when Abou-Gabal placed tenants of apartments above the restaurant in hotels so they wouldn't be disturbed by the construction. Abou-Gabal sent Svazas an invoice to cover $3,000 in hotel costs.
Svazas filed a lawsuit in April 2013, claiming that much of the work the landlord agreed to do on the property hadn't been done, which was preventing the restaurant from opening. In June that year, both sides agreed to a court order compelling the landlord to complete outstanding work and repairs, and waiving Svazas's claim to get the money he paid in hotel costs back.
But in December Svazas and his team were again locked out, despite the June court order that barred either side from preventing work to be done. Another court order let Svazas and contractors back in, and work resumed in January.
Then, in mid January, a water pipe burst, causing damage to the property. Both sides disagreed about how to fix the root cause of the burst pipe, and the dispute once again ended up in court.
In March this year, the police were called to the restaurant to keep the peace. Svazas and two others who were in the restaurant on March 19 claimed that Abou-Gabal showed up with several other people and made threatening remarks. After taking witness statements, police determined that the matter should be settled civilly, according to the court documents. The accusations were never actually tested in court.
A few days later, the court granted Svazas permission to pay rent to the Superior Court of Justice instead of paying it directly to Abou-Gabal.
'I'm cautiously optimistic,' Fauna owner says
Top 2 ridiculous methods to unload some stress while opening a new restaurant.
1. Food yoga. It's the latest thing. From high plank, lower to the floor and then into baby cobra. Take a bite of some menu items the cooks are trying to figure out. Sun salutation. Repeat. Pro tip: Don't overdo it. You could barf.
2. Stare at calming paint swatches and try to imagine yourself floating in an ocean of the colour. It's a perfect ocean, where all orders for appliances and booze are filled promptly and delivered punctually by a team of dolphins that really understand your business plan.
I've tried to reach Abou-Gabal, but my multiple calls to Velika Realty Inc. haven't been returned so far.
On May 2, Svazas told me work was being done at the property and that he's hoping for a June opening date.
"I just don't know if there's going to be more problems," Svazas says. "Every time we get close, something happens. I'm cautiously optimistic, I guess, is the word to use. I refuse to get my hopes up about this because there have been so many problems."
Ottawa's food community has been supportive, Svazas says. In April, Marc Lepine at Atelier let Svazas use the Atelier kitchen for a preview dinner, and Svazas says it felt good to get in a kitchen and cook for others.
But what he really wants, of course, is to open the doors and start generating revenue after making hundreds of thousands of dollars in investments for the restaurant.
A different story at MēNa on Preston Street
MēNa sommellier Samuel James, conversely, says he's had it relatively easy. He's part of the team running the Preston Street restaurant, which opened Feb. 12 in the deepest, darkest trough of the city's restaurant season.
But of course, the quiet has its downsides, especially for a team of young and ambitious 20-somethings.
"It can be frustrating, just kind of waiting around, because we know that we have something good and we're like, why aren't there any butts in seats as much as we'd like to [see]? But I know that we will be very busy soon," James says.
Very unlike Svazas's situation with Fauna, it took the MēNa team about six months to open their doors.
"We got really lucky. A couple of restaurants in the city didn't get as much luck as we did. ... I think within six months of talking about opening a restaurant to opening day, that's all it took," James says.
And while it was certainly a lot easier than what's happening at Fauna, James says it was still difficult. Hundreds of little things have to come together, hopefully on time, to ensure success.
"It is a lot more work than anybody could ever think. You've got to put your heart and soul into it. It's like a child, especially from our perspective. We don't have kids, so this is our baby."