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Diary of a Restaurant – Ch. 27: Dances With Landlords

Mar 18, 2021

A Story Written By Kevin Gallagher

If we had been excited to find a fully equipped kitchen in which to set up our catering company and our restaurant Mildred Pierce, our new landlords, Nick and Sid of SC Entertainment were no less pleased – if a little cautious. One or the other of them would drop by regularly to see if everything was going well for us, but it may have been a case of once bitten, twice shy. The previous tenants, for whom they had made all the leasehold improvements and who had lagged on paying any rent, were caught by Nick one night just as they started to load the restaurant equipment into a truck. Nick called the police and summoned a locksmith to change the locks, intending to hold the equipment as collateral. 

It turned out that the equipment hadn’t been paid for and the company that provided it wanted it back. Both the landlord and the rental company saw us as a potential solution to the impasse. We didn’t need half the equipment, and could only afford about a quarter of it – a floor model Hobart mixer as useful as it would have been was a luxury. SC came to our rescue. If we chose the items we wanted to keep, they would pay off the rental company and add the cost to our rent in monthly installments.

We had to hold our enthusiasm in check as we walked through the kitchen choosing the equipment to keep – no to the steam table and conveyer toaster, yes to the convection oven, the walk-in fridge and the Hobart mixer. There was so much equipment that we wondered what the previous tenants had planned, or if they had a plan. Product was stocked – canned goods, muffin mixes and bar supplies. There were even menus printed for ‘The Howling Dog Cafe’ featuring the Benji burger, the Rin-tin-tin club and Lassie lasagna, but most of the equipment had never even been hooked up. The only piece that showed signs of use was the salamander which had evidence of having been used to make the ‘Old Yeller grilled cheese.’

We were optimistic about our relationship with SC Entertainment. They were an enterprising group with a plan to turn 99 Sudbury into a film hub – a plan that we had a place in, as on-set caterer and commissary kitchen. The Howling Dog Cafe had occupied a much larger area than we had taken, so after settling on our area, SC began creating studio units in the rest. We ignored the construction dust, occasional power outages and water shutoffs  in the expectation that occupancy of these units, with the projected business from the film studio would be worth it. 

The occupants of the new studios did became restaurant regulars, but  although Nick or Syd might occasionally bring a potential investor by for lunch we rarely saw anyone else from SC.  The film catering for SC proved to be intermittent and very low budget. Since most of meals were in the building, transportation costs were not an issue at least, and I was often able to handle them myself. 

We had done a good deal of film catering, and it often seemed that the number of allergies and food preferences on a set were inversely proportional to the budget for the film. But because we also had the restaurant we were able to adapt quickly to special requests. One day, a young rubenesque woman, with a shock of frizzy blonde hair, brought back the special plate of raw vegetables and fruit we had prepared for her.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t eat this,” she sighed, “They’re touching,” pointed to a slice of pear nestled up against a broccoli spear. 

“I can’t really explain – its a yin yang thing. God, I can’t wait until this film is done so I can go see my guru and get straightened out. It’s going to take at least three weeks, I’m sure.”

“I can get another for you in a moment” I said.

“I can just come and get it – what’s this?” she said pointing to a small platter of vegetable crudité and curry dip I had left on a side counter, intending it for the craft service table. 

“May I try it?” She picked up a carrot stick, dipped it, and popped it in her mouth.

“Oh, that’s delicious! What’s in it?”

I was at a loss for words. The secret recipe for the curry dip was Kraft Thousand Island dressing with curry powder – and it had to be Kraft dressing. I tried to remember the ingredients from the back of the jar, “Well, there are bell peppers and onions,” I hesitated, “and cucumber… as well as pickle and white wine vinegar… and soy…”

Thankfully she cut me off, “Oh, I can just tell there is so much goodness.”

SC had planned a gala reception for three hundred guests to celebrate the completion of the project, initially budgeting forty-five thousand dollars for it. Donna submitted a proposal, but after a couple of weeks was told the budget had been reduced. She resubmitted with the same result – and a third time. Finally we found that Syd’s cousin had been hired to serve hot dogs to the crowd.

The derailed gala might have been a clue and we might have noticed that as the months went by,  that we were getting fewer calls from SC for catering, or that budgets were tighter when we did, and that the ambitious development plan had stalled. Donna who had started going to their office personally to collect account payments noticed first that there was no longer a receptionist, then that many of the offices were vacant. We were getting busier and didn’t think much about it.

Building maintenance was sliding too. Notable for us were frequent plumbing backups, which disabled the washrooms and left water lapping at the dining room door, and us having to make excuses. It’s strange how often the guests you think would be most distressed by such an inconvenience are the ones who are least perturbed. The elegant Mrs. Rylands, who came for dinner regularly when she wasn’t in Switzerland, on seeing water seeping under the door winked at me and said, “Oh, Kevin, you really are playing up that Venetian palazzo theme aren’t you?” 

It was annoying though, when we had to suspend dinner service because we couldn’t use the water. Requests for help from the landlord went unanswered. Plumbers shook their heads when we explained that there were two hundred metres of a meandering network of pipes between us and the street. 

Problems with the air conditioning proved to be the worst. When it was functioning, water dripped onto one of the tables and the floor and the cooling was minimal. By noon on a hot  day, the room would be sweltering and although SC agreed that the air conditioning was their responsibility, nothing was done. There were also several gaps around the venting on the roof and depending on which way the wind was blowing on a rainy night certain tables would be under a drip. 

Anne set the tables with paper and bamboo fans from Chinatown; we rented massive electric fans, which provided too much breeze or not enough. Taking a cue from Mrs. Rylands, I tried to keep things light by suggesting people have a gin and tonic and pretend they were in Singapore, but I didn’t get many laughs.

It almost surprised me that on these muggy nights, people still told us they found the room charming.

So it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to get a letter ordering us to make future rent payments to Sun Life Financial, followed by one the next day with the same instructions for Home Savings and Loan. Nick said no, pay it to us as usual; they were sorting things out. We were tempted to put all three names on the cheque, but in the end made it payable to SC. Still, by the end of the month Home Savings had taken ownership of the building.

We hoped to get our maintenance issues sorted out, but Brian, Home Savings and Loan’s agent was clear that the intention was to find a buyer for the building, with as few obligations as possible. When our lease expired, rent payment became month-to month. There was also to be no financial investment. There was no question of having the air conditioning replaced. 

“Oh, and by the way,” said Brian to Donna, “SC didn’t pay the leasing company for the equipment. They want forty thousand dollars.” 

“Tell them I’ll give them three.” she answered.

“They’ll never go for it.”

“Then tell them to come and get the equipment.

Brian called back after a couple of days. “Okay, they’ll go for it.”

“Good,” said Donna, “Why don’t you pay them, and we’ll pay it out in installments over the next twelve months. Besides, it looks like we’re going to have to fix the air conditioning ourselves.”

Brian just sighed.

READ THE NEXT CHAPTER: ‘Springtime on the Patio’