Not enough room for two

Neighbors always thought it odd that two neighborhood restaurants were next door to each other. They didn't know how tense it really was.

It always looked a little odd; two neighborhood eateries -- one a cozy bakery, the other a modern caf -- with doors next to each other in the CARAG neighborhood.

Soon, one of the neighbors -- Duane Burke, owner of Annamarie's Bakeshop and Eatery -- will close his doors and give way to his competitor, Gigi's Caf.

Burke said he's angry, claiming he's being "pushed out" of his 820 W. 36th St. space that he's occupied for nearly five years -- which the newer Gigi's, 818 W. 36th St., will expand into. To add salt to the wound, Burke said, he poured $30,000 into what became Gigi's original space.

Burke, however, is not the only wounded businessowner on the block. Alex Woehrlin, Gigi's owner and a CARAG resident, said his expansion into Annamarie's space has caused undeserved backlash for his caf, and he feels stuck in the middle.

Building owner Thomas Norton, who also owns Bryant Hardware, 822 W. 36th St., said Burke had every opportunity to lease the space for Annamarie's. He said he signed a lease with Gigi's Woehrlin only after Burke had stalled for months on signing a lease and withheld rent.

Gigi's Woehrlin said Annamarie's lease arrangement is none of his business, and he feels stuck in the middle of a feud when he just wants to run a neighborhood coffee shop.

A deal gone bad Annamarie's opened first. Burke and his wife started the bakery in January 1999, after both lost their jobs at insurance companies. They cashed in their retirements and decided to make a go at their own business.

He said they liked the small shop's mom-and-pop feel; their 15-year-old daughter and Burke's mother working behind the counter. Burke said it made him feel good, like he was in a small town.

In November 2000, Brotherson's Meat Market went of out business in the space where Gigi's would eventually open. Burke said he wanted to expand Annamarie's there.

Norton was buying the building. Burke said he talked to Norton and the previous building owner about expanding Annamarie's. He began paying rent and working on the space, with the promise of a lease to come.

Burke said he paid $500 a month on the expansion space from December 2000 to June 2001, increasing that to $1,000 per month until a lease was hammered out after Norton bought the building.

Norton said Annamarie's wasn't his first choice for the Brotherson's space, but Burke had started work there, so he complied.

Burke said by then he'd done lots of demolition work and sought renovation bids and never knew he wasn't what Norton desired for the spot. It was then, he said, that he realized the building was in serious disrepair, needing more than $200,000 of plumbing and electrical work.

"Every time you touched the wall, plaster would fall off because nothing had been done (to the building) for a century," Burke said.

Burke noted that he had already spent $13,000 on repairs and expected Norton to help pay because of the building's serious flaws.

Norton said Burke's request for money was not his responsibility, so he declined. He acknowledged the building was in rough shape, but noted that his leases specifically state that the landlord is only responsible for the roof and the walls.

"Everything inside the walls and the roof is the tenant's responsibility," Norton said.

He said Burke knew this because that was the policy for Annamarie's existing space. But when Norton rejected the request to pay for repairs, Burke began withholding rent to get a lease.

Norton said he presented Burke with a lease that the Annamarie's owner rejected. Norton said Burke continued to withhold rent and occupy the Brotherson's space. Burke said the lease was a joke, stating the lease stipulated the building was in good condition when it wasn't.

Said Norton, "As soon as Burke stopped paying, I said (to Burke) 'I'm done with this.'"

Norton said his only option was to find a new tenant who would put money into the Brotherson's space. Norton said Gigi's Woehrlin was prepared financially for the investment, so they proceeded.

Gigi's: stuck in the middle Woehrlin said he shops at Norton's hardware store, and they've often chatted about their businesses. Woehrlin owns B & W Coffee, which supplies many independent Southwest coffee shops. According to Woehrlin, Norton said he needed a tenant, stating the future Gigi's space had sat empty for over a year.

Woehrlin jumped at the chance and opened Gigi's in September 2002.

Burke said he was still occupying the disputed space (but withholding rent) when he heard Gigi's had signed a lease for it. He says it's clear now the new caf was part of plot to run out Annamarie's.

Burke said engineering the Gigi's entrance right next to Annamarie's front door was a purposeful attempt to confuse customers. "Gigi's was in the background, and they were trying to bleed me."

There is no conspiracy, Woehrlin said. He said he specifically told Norton that if there was already a tenant for the space, he wasn't interested.

Woehrlin acknowledged some crossover between Gigi's and Annamarie's but said his business is different, and he wants to run it peacefully.

He said he's endured hostility from Burke since he's opened, and patrons have complained about the new kid on the block harming the older caf.

Burke said Annamarie's customers always asked and were empathic about his situation. He said customer loyalty is the only good thing he's seen from the whole ordeal. "People noticed and started asking about it," he said. "(Norton and Woehrlin) underestimated some of the backlash."

Woehrlin said that hostility upsets him and is undeserved.

Woehrlin said Burke simply didn't have the money to complete Annamarie's expansion. He said that's common in business, and he has also had plans fail because they proved costlier than was originally thought.

Moving on Gigi's will expand into Annamarie's existing space when Burke's five-year lease expires in January. Burke said he saw it coming, so he opened a new location in the East Harriet neighborhood at 4301 Bryant Ave. S.

Burke said the whole saga has left him with a bad taste. He said running a small business is extremely hard -- his family has been living off savings since Annamarie's opened in 1999. "It's been very hard on my family, especially my wife," Burke said.

Adding tragedy to the tale, Burke said, his father passed away from a massive heart attack after helping demolish Gigi's space when it was unoccupied.

Still, Burke said Annamarie's is doing well at its new location, and he's pleased with his relationship with his new landlord. Burke said he can't forget what happened but wants to put the CARAG saga behind him.

Norton said although lawyers became involved in their negotiations, he has no harsh words for Burke. He said he's sad to lose a bakery that helped keep the corner vibrant. However, Norton said, a Gigi's type of place -- more modern and upscale -- is exactly what he had in mind when he purchased the building.

Woehrlin said he is also excited and busy planning, including applying for a city beer and wine license to accommodate a dinner menu, among other expansion plans.