An Old Chinatown Restaurant Closes

(Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

(Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Two Sing Tao Daily articles reported on the closing of Grand Harmony, one of the largest and oldest restaurants in Chinatown. In the first one, reporter Faye Qiu covers the hours leading up to the closing, which was officially announced by a posted notice, and speaks to the landlord. Members of the community tell reporter April Xu, in the second story, the reasons behind  the shuttering of Grand Harmony and other restaurants in Chinatown.

The Grand Harmony restaurant at 98 Mott St. posted a notice on its door in the evening of Aug. 31, announcing the termination of its business that has lasted decades in Chinatown. The reason for the curtain drop, according to the notice, is that the restaurant couldn’t reach an agreement with the landlord on the terms of its lease renewal.

The landlord, the Chew Lun Lun Hing Association, a community organization, told Sing Tao the restaurant had been delinquent on its rent for a while. And that’s the reason for the failed negotiation on the lease renewal. According to court documents, Chew Lun filed a lawsuit against Grand Harmony a month ago over the rent dispute. 

On the afternoon of Aug. 31, word had started to spread that the restaurant may shut down. When this reporter arrived at the restaurant to confirm the news before the notice was posted, most people working in the restaurant turned their heads away or said:” I don’t know. I am not the boss.”

At last, a woman working as the cashier admitted: “Yes, it is our last day. The employees are being asked to come back tomorrow to get the final paychecks.” But when asked about the reasons for the closure, she said:” I don’t know. I just came back to work from a long vacation.”

A notice posted by Grand Harmony announces it is closing. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

A notice posted by Grand Harmony announces it is closing. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

In the evening, the notice was posted on the outside of the glass door of the restaurant, saying: “Our lease is expiring and we are not able to reach an agreement for renewal with the landlord. So we decided to cease operation starting today.”

People at the property committee of Chew Lun said the restaurant has a 10-year lease that started in 2005. It won’t expire until December this year. But the restaurant has not paid rent for seven months. Chew Lun cannot offer the restaurant a renewal until it clears all the money it is owed. 

According to the landlord, the rent of the restaurant has been frozen at $39,000 a month since 2008 to help it go through a downturn in business. Recently, Chew Lun, via Century 21, the management company of the property, offered some conditions to the restaurant for its lease renewal, including asking it to pay back the delinquent rent. But the restaurant declined.

The “landlords and tenants” dossier at the city’s civil court has documents related to the conflict. According to court documents, Chew Lun has filed a lawsuit against Grand Harmony for rent delinquency in July, and the tenant owes the landlord $279,300. The case, originally slated to be heard on July 1, has been postponed three times to Sept. 17.

People at Chew Lun said the lawsuit was their last resort. They started discussing the problem with the restaurant in May, but no agreement has been reached.

As for what the landlord plans to do with the property at 98 Mott St. now that the restaurant is gone, people at Chew Lun said three or four entities already showed interest in moving in. All of them are in the food service industry. The landlord declined to reveal the asking rent.

 The closure of Grand Harmony, a restaurant that had been operating in Chinatown for decades,  saddened many of its patrons. On Sept. 1, many people who had booked seats for their banquets before the announcement called or went to the restaurant to ask what they should do.

Some active community members who have been living in Chinatown for many years and understand the community well said multiple reasons can be blamed for shuttering the restaurant, including gentrification, rent hikes, the lukewarm economy of the U.S. in recent years, the decline of Chinatown, as well as management problems at the restaurant.

Before the closure of Grand Harmony, many restaurants in Chinatown had already been struggling. For example, the East Market restaurant on East Broadway, a popular place among Fujianese immigrants, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), said that in addition to a difficult external environment, word has been spreading in the community about the internal problems of Grand Harmony. The management tended to offer better job positions and higher wages to people who were their relatives or friends. And the managers were also criticized for keeping the financial status of the restaurant a secret. 

Another community member said many restaurants in Chinatown are facing similar challenges from skyrocketing rent. On the one hand, rising property taxes force the landlords to raise the rent. On the other, restaurants have to pay not only the rent, but also utility bills, salaries to the employees, and insurance. These items add up to a huge cost which, unless they can host enough banquets, big restaurants are not able to afford. 

The community member also said Chinatown has attracted fewer tourists in recent years. And residents here have been aging quickly. Now many are seniors with low incomes. They cannot afford to have dim sum at big restaurants and mainly buy food from cheaper bakeries. These are all the reasons that lead to the decline of restaurants.

Another community member pointed out that some worker advocate organizations frequently organize protests in front of restaurants holding a coffin. Restaurants targeted lost a lot of business because of the protests, which directly contributed to the closures of some including Silver Place, Golden Bridge and East Market. Eventually, the restaurant workers who attended the protests lost their jobs when the restaurants were closed. 

Ng of CCBA said the number of empty storefronts in Chinatown is too high now thanks to the high rent. This is a waste for the landlords too. The landlords should lower the rent to attract tenants. Lower rent not only is more affordable to the tenant but also may lead to lower property taxes. It is a win-win solution.

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