Montreal restaurant manager shocked when retail space suddenly listed as available for lease

Restaurant Nilufar survived the pandemic and isn't suffering during the labour shortage, but the landlord may have different plans for the property. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji - image credit)
Restaurant Nilufar survived the pandemic and isn't suffering during the labour shortage, but the landlord may have different plans for the property. (Submitted by Nilufar Al-Shourbaji - image credit)

Nilufar Al-Shourbaji woke up to perplexing text messages Tuesday as friends demanded to know why her family's restaurant, a mainstay on Montreal's Ste-Catherine Street, was closing its doors.

"You could have let us know," Al-Shourbaji said, recounting the texts.

"I wish you would have, you know, talked to us before selling the place and I'm like, 'what the hell are you talking about?'"

Her friends were asking her why Restaurant Nilufar, named after her, was listed as available for rent online.

Advertised at $3,170 per month for 950 square feet of commercial space, the restaurant is located just west of St-Marc Street downtown.

It is known for serving exceptionally low-priced, flavourful food even now when the cost of living is skyrocketing.

The restaurant first opened in 1994, selling falafel pitas for 99 cents. Today, it's possible to get a full meal there for about $6 as the family believes in making food accessible to everybody —  feeding the most people possible.

Despite the COVID-19 restrictions that led to restaurant closures throughout downtown and the ongoing labour shortage, Al-Shourbaji said her business is doing just fine.

Landlord says father rejected long-term lease

So it was a surprise to see the listing online, with an asking price notably higher than what her family pays each month, she said.

And while the landlord may be looking for a tenant with deeper pockets, she said he never spoke to her or her family about the potential rent hike before posting the ads online.

"Just imagine that you're sitting in your childhood home and you're looking at a listing and your childhood home is up for sale or for rent and you had no idea," Al-Shourbaji said.

For the past several years, the restaurant has been on a month-by-month lease.

The landlord, Ziki Zaffir, said his company did offer Al-Shourbaji's father a long-term lease.

"He said clearly he wasn't interested because he'd rather retire and what we want, we want the long-term lease at fair market rent," Zaffir said. "The guy is also paying a very old low rent."

When asked about this, Al-Shourbaji said her family was not approached about a long-term lease, and based on what's happened, she certainly won't be signing a deal with the landlord now.

Agressive rent hike tactics

Glenn Castanheira, the executive director of the downtown Montreal merchants' association, said this is the first time he has heard of a property owner putting a commercial space up for rent without informing the tenant.

However, he has seen plenty of aggressive tactics when it comes to raising the rent, he said.

Long-time tenants are facing exploding rent hikes and poor property management, he said.

"This is not the majority of downtown landlords, thankfully, but it is something that is happening more frequently than we would like to admit," said Castanheira.

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CBC News

Despite the economic woes that came with the pandemic, downtown has been blossoming into an attractive, bustling business sector and, "in a nutshell, we are victims of our own success," he said.

It is drawing "massive investment" and property owners see that as a reason to leave a space vacant until a larger company, usually a franchise, is willing to pay high rent, he explained.

Or, the landlord may choose to wait until property value shoots up and simply sell the building, he said.

"A lot of these landlords take these businesses hostage within their own business," he said, because it is so expensive, especially with a restaurant, to pack everything up and move.

"What these businesses end up doing, is they pay rent, and they pay their staff, and they end up taking home a meagre, meagre salary."

Often, he said, businesses are forced to close up shop.

Merchants' association wants more regulation

Restaurant Nilufar is located in an area that has been developing in the last five years, attracting investment and speculation, and Castanheira suspects there will be more cases of businesses getting squeezed out of the area.

But there are ways to help business owners stay in operation, he said.

The downtown merchants' association wants to see further regulations on commercial leases, like renewal clauses and pre-negotiated rent increases, he said.

The group would also like to see stricter rules when it comes to maintaining vacant retail spaces, forcing landlords to keep them lit, clean and maintained well enough for the next tenant to move in at a moment's notice.

"Those are things that should be put forth as quickly as possible to limit these abuses," said Castanheira.