We broke the first rule of retail leasing: Don’t fall in love with the space.
Although we knew it would require renovation, we were charmed by the ample natural sunlight, the high ceilings, and the possibility of an upstairs at 3702 Riverdale Ave.
We brushed off the gruff tone of our then-contact at the management company. More seriously, we downplayed the fact that there was no negotiation — take it or leave it. We already had seen in our mind’s eye the beautiful café that it could be, so we took it.
With much excitement, we started the process. A flurry of plans, approvals and permits. We had never met — nor talked directly — with our landlord, but we heard from his attorney. As a result of an honest misunderstanding, we were forbidden from continuing with construction until further notice.
We paid rent nonetheless, worried that if we didn’t, we would be in breach of our lease. Increasingly distraught, we pleaded our case and engaged an attorney to represent us — another expensive endeavor. In a deeply personal and painful way, we experienced the lack of legal protection afforded to small commercial tenants, and the huge disparity in resources — financial as well as professional — between small business tenants and our commercial landlords.
After paying rent for 15 months, we finally opened. We received a truly warm welcome from the Riverdale community. Customers admired the beautiful renovation. A community of regulars frequented Buunni. Many had gotten to know us and our coffee at our weekly table at The Riverdale Y Sunday Market.
We hosted a diverse group: retirees, freelancers, employees from other local businesses, students from the many area schools and colleges. Realtors and writers, artists and musicians. Monthly banjo jams and a regular rotation of art by local talent kept things lively.
We also drew on a long tradition of coffee house activism, and hosted postcard writing sessions advocating for the ACLU, and “coffee with the candidate,” including now state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, and now U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman, as well as candidate Andom Ghebreghiorgis.
Then came the pandemic. It had been a little less than two years since we opened when we closed temporarily. Throughout it all, we received tremendous support from the Riverdale community. In-person, online, offers of help, generous online orders, and tips for our staff.
Despite this outpouring of support from the community, our Riverdale location was the last of our four locations to reopen due to a prolonged back and forth with our landlord to negotiate a rent reduction.
At last count, nearly 30 percent of small businesses have closed in New York, and in the country at large.
Others like ours — supported by local customers — pushed to make it through 2020, only to start 2021 financially and psychologically stretched thin.
If Riverdale wants to retain its small businesses, residents and loyal customers cannot shoulder the burden alone. Our government’s attempts to help small independent businesses, however, have been clumsy at best. The situation is most dire for the smallest of business.
Street vendors, undocumented workers and entrepreneurs, Black- and brown-owned businesses have suffered the most.
So what would make it better? While we need bolder, more far-reaching legislation. There are several bills already sitting in the New York City council and the state senate that could provide a boost.
The commercial vacancy tax bill (S.83), sponsored by state Sen. Brad Hoylman, proposes a tax on empty street-level commercial and retail property. It will help by creating an incentive for landlords to meet the market and lease to interested prospective tenants instead of holding out for artificially high rents that only a few sectors and national chains are able to pay.
The bill proposes a tax on landlords who leave their street-level storefronts vacant for more than six months. It will encourage dynamism in neighborhoods, and a diverse array of services that residents need and want.
The senate should pass this without delay.
Intro. 1932-A, which temporarily suspends personal guaranties for defaults on commercial leases for businesses — including restaurants, bars, barbershops and others — should be extended. It provides practical relief to one of the biggest worries small business owners face: Personal financial ruin on top of losing their business.
The much-touted Small Business Jobs Survival Act targets the commercial lease process. Since commercial rent control was repealed in 1963, New York City small businesses have remained unprotected. This bill would provide a much more limited version of the protections afforded to residential tenants, to small commercial tenants.
It doesn’t go far enough, but it will help small businesses with the most egregious landlord problems. National chains have much higher negotiating power with landlords, and ironically, get better terms from landlords who see them as less risky. It’s beyond time to pass this bill.
One of the most practical and immediate steps the city council can take is to pass Intro. 1116 and lift arbitrary and outdated restrictions on vending permits that have not been revised since 1983. The “caps” on permits create an extractive, corrupt and abusive system — mostly affecting immigrant entrepreneurs.
City permits are “capped,” leading to $200 permits being traded for up to $25,000. During COVID-19 times, it is particularly unimaginative not to capitalize on the potential for conducting business outdoors.
Vendors, traditionally stationed in tourist and dense office areas of the city, have been severely affected — but are restricted from moving to areas where they might find more customers and perform a useful service.
The boldest of the bills is the New York Health Act (S.3577A). The new Democratic supermajority in New York can make our state a leader in the nation and provide quality, comprehensive health care to all.
Most workers in the smallest of businesses — and in the food, beverage and restaurant industries — don’t have health insurance. We’ve learned — more painfully than we should have — that we need a functioning, equitable health care system that puts people and their health over profits.
I believe health care is a human right. But if you don’t, there are plenty of economic arguments in support of the bill.
It will make small businesses more attractive employers, and enable many more people to choose entrepreneurship and start their own businesses. An astonishing 98 percent of New Yorkers would pay less under the proposed program.
Passing this bill would have a transformative impact.
Coming back to Riverdale, today — less than three years since we opened — we have come full circle. We have reached an impasse with our landlord. Like many small businesses that survived 2020, we got through the year in large part because our landlord agreed to a temporary rent reduction.
As that rent reduction agreement with our landlord ends, so too, must our dream of 3702 Riverdale Ave.
The author is co-founder of Buunni Coffee.