Black Cat Eviction Notice Highlights Plight Of Rivertown Restaurants
By Barrett Seaman—
The notice came just two days after New York State’s oft-extended pandemic moratorium on commercial evictions finally lapsed at the end of January. With more than $35,000 in unpaid back rent, Irvington’s popular Main Street café, The Black Cat, was notified by its landlord, KIN Properties of Boca Raton, Florida, that it must vacate the premises by the end of February—that is, by the end of next week as of this writing.
The café’s proprietress, Emily Feliciano, who had been trying to negotiate a restructuring of her $3,268.96 per month rent since the pandemic shut down so many businesses last March, resorted to the modern-day version of the tin cup: she launched a GoFundMe fundraising effort on the internet and laid out her financial predicament for all to see on the local Facebook page.
Her monthly expenses, she says, even while closed was $5,193; power and labor costs, when open, would add $2,800, she says. Total operating costs amounted to about $14,000. “The café, at its maximum intake including specialty catering, was approximately $25,200-a-month,” she wrote recently from London where she says she is accompanying her husband, Kyle Crichton, while he recovers from surgery.
That was then, however. Since the pandemic struck last March, like so many restaurants and other brick-and-mortar businesses, the café has been shut down. Emily says she tried doing takeout in the beginning, which she says brought in $100-to-$200-a-day. “At that point, I had to shut down as it was costing me more to stay open than to close. We lost commuters, the business folks down at the river, the lunching ladies, the work from cafe crowd, school lunches and after school crowd.”
Operating for about 15 years, The Black Cat had indeed become a convenient stopping point for commuters on their way down the hill to Metro North, a go-to for folks in the village looking for a place to meet for a cup of coffee or a light lunch, and a homey office-away-from-home for local laptop workers. Other, similar cafes in the rivertowns, like the Red Barn on South Buckout in Irvington or Muddy Waters and Coffee Labs in Tarrytown, have managed to keep their heads above water, depending on how aggressively they have pivoted to the grab-and-go model or what their rents and overheads were compared to The Black Cat’s. Venues with larger table spaces could seat 25% of their capacity, but The Black Cat’s intimate space rendered that financially unworkable.
Another variable in restaurateurs’ quests to survive has been the availability of subsidies from Westchester County and the state. Emily received a small Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan and a small grant from Westchester County. She also took out a $32,000 Small Business Association (SBA) loan. In addition, New York State offers a Small Business Lease Assistance Partnership, which provides pro bono legal assistance in eviction cases and other benefits. But it all wasn’t enough.
There is nothing unusual about a restaurant facing an existential threat such as The Black Cat faces today. “Overall, total restaurant and foodservice sales were down $240 billion from expected levels in 2020,” reported the National Restaurant Association in its national assessment of year past. “To be sure, the restaurant industry will have a much steeper climb out of the crater that was created by the coronavirus,” the report predicted. “Although restaurant and food service sales are expected to post double-digit growth in 2021, the business environment for restaurants will likely be a tale of two halves with conditions varying significantly by region.”
And by type as well: The small, independent restaurants and cafes that typify the rivertown dining scene are more vulnerable for lack of resources and market size. A few in the villages, like Twisted Oak in Tarrytown, have closed up for good. Others have shuttered temporarily—they hope. “In a general sense, there is the feeling among restaurant owners that there is no other choice but to stay open,” says Michelle Adams, partner in Hastings’ Saint George Bistro and Dobbs Ferry’s Harpers and recently named president of the Rivertowns Chamber of Commerce. ”The PPP loans are helpful for limited periods, but they are tied to payroll and designed to keep people working. There really is no option for businesses to keep the lights off until they are comfortable re-opening, it’s a really unfortunate position to be in.”
Initially, Emily was able to get her absentee landlord, KIN Properties, to defer half her monthly payments for three months with a payback payment to make up the difference after that. But when the pandemic continued unabated, she couldn’t fulfill those terms. The only thing that kept her going was the governor’s eviction moratorium. There was some indication in early January that Cuomo would extend it again until spring, but that didn’t happen and KIN slapped her with the eviction notice.
Even without the rent issue, The Black Cat faced significant upkeep expenses, including $20,000 to fix a floor that was caving in. Emily says the building’s former manager, JPMorganChase, refused to pay for the repairs. And she had ambitious plans to expand the business. “We are going to grow many of our own herbs, fruits and vegetables in Vermont.” She also planned to launch “a line of Black Cat café specialty products, like sauces, marinades and veggie burgers along with special dinner nights, like Spanish tapas and raclette.”
First, however, is the matter of raising $35,000. In its first week, the GoFundMe campaign had raised a little over $2,000, but she has paid the price by inviting some uncharitable, even vitriolic criticism on Facebook, where she had shared her financial picture in all its stark terms. Many of the posts were supportive, but some accused her of being lazy, even fraudulent. In response, Emily has reiterated an early promise to pay everyone back who invested in the campaign—that is, if she is unable to re-open successfully.