Well-loved Syrian restaurant in Hamilton, Ont., shuts down after more than $1K increase in rent

Mohamed Tomeh said he's considering opening a cheese factory or starting up a food truck, but after a rent increase of around $1,700 at his Queen Street South location, he'd have a hard time trusting a landlord again.

'I tell myself 'I'm strong. I can start again,' says Mohamad Tomeh

Mohamad Tomeh stands outside his restaurant which closed on Feb. 27. The Syrian immigrant said he couldn't afford a rent increase of about $1,700 requested by his landlord. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

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The doors at Tomah restaurant closed for the last time Sunday night, but owner Mohamad Tomeh says it's not the end of his journey to bring Syrian flavour to Hamilton.

The restaurateur said he's considering opening a cheese factory or starting up a food truck, but after a rent increase of as much as $2,000 for the location on Queen Street South, he'd have a hard time trusting a landlord again.

"All my family, their heart is broken now," he said Monday, as he watched workers cleaning up the restaurant and clearing out equipment.

Tomeh immigrated to Canada from Syria in September, 2018.

"For the future for my family, my children, Canada is the best place," he told CBC.

The restaurant was known for its cheeses and proved popular with customers. (Tomah restaurant/Facebook)

Roughly nine months after their arrival, the family opened the restaurant, taking over from a bar and grill called Big Ed's.

Tomah, Taste of Syria Restaurant and Cheesemaker, the sign outside has read since.

It's proven popular, with satisfied diners sharing their appreciation for the food on a January post by Tomeh, thanking customers for their support.

"Love your food and kindness!" wrote one person. "We are lucky to have you," said another. 

A father of six, Tomeh ran the restaurant with the help of his wife and four of their kids, who lent a hand after school.

But when negotiations began for a new lease back in November, he said he was shocked by his landlord asking for around $1,700 more per month, on top the $3,700 he'd been paying. Tomeh said at one point the landlord mentioned charging $5,700.

"It's very difficult," he said. "He surprised me, [it's] too much."

'I have to pay my bills,' says landlord

A listing for the restaurant is asking for $26 per square foot and $9 in annual taxes, for the 1,900-square-foot-space.

That works out to about $5,400 per month, a figure Tomeh said is just too high when added to his other bills.

He had already spent about $160,000 on the business, including tens of thousands on a renovation, Tomeh said. 

Then calculate the cost of two years of lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and having to quickly sell his equipment, and Tomeh said it adds up to a big loss.

 "Coronavirus don't kill me," he said. "But the landlord, he did."

Mohamad Tomeh stands in the middle of his restaurant, Tomah, Taste of Syria Restaurant and Cheesemaker, on Feb. 28, 2022 as crews clear out his equipment. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Niwair Gill, the landlord, told CBC when the lease expired he did some research and found the market rent was around $5,600.

He said he offered Tomeh a rate of $5,000 per month, but "negotiations between us did not work out."

Gill noted his costs have gone up, too.

"I have to pay my bills," he said. "I want to help him. I cannot help him."

Tejwinder Sudan, the Royal Lepage broker, said the landlord tried to find a "middle ground" that would make both him and Tomeh happy, but that effort wasn't successful.

He pointed out that the property tax for the location had spiked in recent years, from about $9,000 when Gill took it over six years ago to roughly $19,000 now.

No limit for commercial rent increase

Ontario's commercial rental rules don't limit the amount landlords can increase rent.

It's an issue examined by the Better Way Alliance, an organization that "brings together Ontario business owners who value decent work." The group released a report this month that profiled Tomah restaurant as part of a "commercial rent crisis."

It surveyed more than 50 small businesses and found 75 per cent experienced a one-time rent increase of 10 per cent or more, while 17 per cent saw a rent increase of 50 per cent or more. 

"The lack of guidelines for commercial rent increases means rent can double overnight," it read in part.

The report called for the provincial government to create rent guidelines for year-over-year increases.

Homam, Tomeh's 17-year-old son, said Monday was a "really hard day" as he watched the restaurant be dismantled.

A worker cleans off worktables outside the restaurant as it was cleared on Monday. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Part of what made it special was working with family, but now they'll have to find other jobs and won't be together, he said.

"Family, it's something real."

Tomeh said that feeling extends to the community, thanking those who surrounded and supported the restaurant, and saying they seemed more like family members than customers.

He's not sure he'll be able to find that feeling again.

Despite the pain of shutting down, Tomeh said life doesn't stop at the location on Queen Street South.

"I tell myself 'I'm strong. I can start again,'" he said.

"I want my family, my children [to] do something good for Canada."


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