When Moon Choi reluctantly closed his Westlake Coffee Shop in Daly City two weeks ago, he expected to have some time to remove his property. So he was shocked the next day to find that Kimco Realty Corp. had not only changed the locks, but also removed a hand-written sign thanking his customers for 30 years of loyalty. A Notice of Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property was posted on the front door, but it was mistakenly addressed to the owners of the Southgate Café, another tenant recently forced to leave the Westlake Shopping Center.
Those weren’t the center’s only such departures. Other small businesses that have left Westlake Shopping Center in the face of staggering rent increases include 88 Rice Bowl and Slider’s Diner. Although the Southgate Café’s most recent owner could not be reached for comment, former owner Sophia Vlahakos recalls a conversation she had with her brother after he bought the business from her.
“They told my brother they didn’t want mom-and-pop businesses, I remember that,” she said.
Diana Wang, whose father owned Slider’s Diner, said when their lease expired in 2010, Kimco wanted them to agree to “crazy terms,” including marketing and property management fees, which would have more than doubled their rent.
“They didn’t want to negotiate at all,” Wang said. “It was basically, ‘Why don’t you leave?’”
In the case of Westlake Coffee Shop, the closure has become a citywide issue. During a recent City Council meeting, Choi’s supporters urged Daly City to intercede on behalf of the beloved coffee shop, which had been told it would have to accept a $10,000-per-month rent increase or relocate.
Web designer Linda Trout said she regarded the staff and regulars as family, adding, “My mother and I have a hard time going to other places, because we’re both disabled.”
Another speaker seemed on the verge of tears, saying he loved the coffee shop and didn’t want it to go away. When Choi’s wife, Yoon, took the podium, she could not stop her tears. With her husband’s arm wrapped around her, she explained that they had struggled to come to acceptable terms with their landlord, and they wanted to stay.
The entire council expressed sympathy. Councilman Sal Torres promised to ask Kimco to give the Chois more time, while Vice Mayor David Canepa asked City Manager Patricia Martel if she could help find a more affordable location.
Martel agreed to do so, adding that she had seen several tenants forced out of the mall, leaving storefronts indefinitely vacant.
Martel said, “Whatever the rationale from a business perspective that Kimco has for establishing lease rates in the manner in which they are currently doing, it’s outside of our understanding.”
Kimco officials did not respond to several interview requests. The publicly traded New York firm owns 895 malls, including Daly City’s 280 Metro Center, and Pacifica’s Fairmont and Linda Mar shopping centers.
But Choi’s daughter Christina says Kimco wouldn’t budge, even after the City Council got involved. After the May 1 lockout, however, her family called the police, and was told the lockout was illegal. In light of this, Kimco has given them until May 27 to remove their property.
Although the council couldn’t buy the family more time, Christina Choi says Mayor Ray Buenaventura and Canepa have been working hard to help her parents find a new spot.
“I’m so amazed with them,” she said. “I can’t believe Daly City has been so supportive!”
As a result of the city’s input, the Chois are considering moving into a space next to the Century 20 Theater on Junipero Serra Boulevard.
Canepa says the city must encourage small businesses, and he’ll do everything in his power to find the Chois a place where they’re wanted and appreciated.
“I’m just a little disappointed with Kimco and how they handled the situation,” he said. “To raise the rent from $4,000 to $14,000 is like saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want you there.’”
Moon Choi likens his former landlord to an unstoppable dinosaur, saying, “They act like they’re the lords of Daly City; The Kimlords … they have no heart, no human heart. I’m very angry.”