When Russell Street Deli’s closure was announced on April 22, many wondered how a $50,000 dispute could be the end for a staple of Eastern Market for 30 years. Eastern Market Development Corporation offered to step in, as did many individuals to contribute to a potential crowdfunding campaign.
But Russell Street Deli was determined to close or move. Why?
Some light was shed on the decision in a lengthy statement made to the deli’s Facebook page the morning of May 2.
The dispute resulted from a disagreement with Sanford Nelson—the new landlord who bought the 18,000-square-foot building in June 2018 for $20 million—who demanded that Russell Street pay $50,000 for repairs to the floor caused by supposedly unaddressed maintenance issues.
Russell Street Deli says that the dispute is just one part of a toxic relationship it has had with Nelson and his real estate company, Firm Real Estate. The restaurant says it has felt “bullied” by the landlord, who is never mentioned by name in the post.
Several anonymous tips were made to inspectors with the city—after not getting any in 30 years—and that the restaurant passed each. Nonetheless, Nelson said that the repairs had to be made and that the deli had to pay for it. The restaurant would also need to be shut down for an “indefinite” amount of time.
Here’s the relevant passage from the statement:
This was the breaking point in many ways. Not that he would try and get us to pay 50K but that he’d remove our ability to make money and support the staff and customers on an unverified claim, in an uninspected building, in a business that had passed city inspection, recently and repeatedly, and that we could be closed for an indefinite amount of time. He said, and this is verbatim, “I know it’s not structural. I just want it done.” By those terms he can do anything whenever he wants.
The other alternative would be to rewrite the restaurant’s lease agreement, set to expire in 2021, by increasing rent 122 percent.
Read the full post here:
Firm Real Estate released its own, much shorter statement in response to the Facebook post:
We tried to solve this amicably from the very beginning but the owner has made it clear that he is determined to close despite offers from many sources, including Firm Real Estate. We’re sorry to hear he is leaving his current location and wish he and his team the best of luck in the future.
Russell Street Deli is also notable for paying its employees a living wage and employing a mostly African-American staff, many of which have worked there for years. The restaurant is currently looking for an alternative space, and given the amount of well-wishes from the community, we’re confident they’ll find a landing spot.
Since buying 20 properties in Eastern Market since 2017, a number of Firm Real Estate tenants have closed or relocated. Nelson says he is committed to preserving the character of the market, but playing hardball with a beloved staple of the district suggests otherwise.