Mariner’s Bistro, housed in a nondescript building on the property of Mariners Village in Marina del Rey, is more than just a place where one can get a good meal for a reasonable price, say local residents.
Richie Cole, a well-known jazz musician, says visiting the bistro is “like walking into my own living room. Everyone is so friendly and warm.
“They really know how to make you feel at home.”
But in recent weeks, the eatery has become the focus of a campaign by Marina residents determined to save the deli from closing its doors for good.
The bistro’s lease is set to expire Monday, February 1st, and residents at Mariners Village have rallied to the cause of the Yesayan family, the deli’s operators.
Approximately 800 signatures have been collected by Marina del Rey residents, tenants at Mariners Village and customers of the Yesayans, who have run the deli for the better part of five years.
The owners of the bistro were issued a 60-day notice in December to vacate the premises to make way for a new operator, a move by lessee E&S Ring that has rubbed some who reside at Mariners Village raw.
“I am sickened that in a time of economic crisis, Mariners Village would opt to oust a business that is thriving in the community and well-loved by the residents,” Nicole Vann, who resides at Mariners Village, wrote in a letter to E&S Ring, which owns the apartment complex.
Last year, the Yesayans learned that the lease they thought they held on the site belonged to the original operator, after they approached the onsite management company to explore exercising their option.
“We met with the district manager, Christine Valentino, and the portfolio manager, Mark Wagner in August, and we had discussions about renewing our lease,” Art Yesayan said during a recent interview at the bistro. “They seemed like they were really interested in our ideas about some of the changes that we were planning and they wanted to see in the bistro.”
Art Yesayan said that in October, the family received a visit from Valentino, who delivered a letter stating that the owners would be considering other proposals for the bistro, which took the family by surprise.
“We thought that we had (addressed) everything they wanted us to do,” he said. “The renovations that they wanted would cost about $50,000, and we were ready to spend that if they would have agreed to renegotiate with us.”
Zarik Yesayan, the patriarch of the family, says they have already invested several hundred thousand dollars in the bistro over more than five years and were willing to spend more money to make the suggested upgrades, but first wanted to know that their lease would be renewed.
Soon after that incident, a signature gathering campaign by the complex’s residents was underway.
Eric Yesayan, Zarik’s younger son, remembers the early days of the bistro and how much he says sales have increased since five years ago.
“We were only making a few hundred dollars in the first few months, and we grew this place because we treated it like our home,” he recalled. “People started trusting us and all of a sudden we hear that they want to bring somebody else in, for no good reason.”
The family members say they have labored to create an environment that is more than just a place to get a pizza or have a quick sandwich and a soft drink.
“My dad welcomes everyone who come here as if they were coming into our home,” Eric Yesayan said. “People like the way that we treat them, like family instead of customers.”
On the day of the Argonaut interview, several customers came into the bistro to lament the possible closure of the restaurant, to give Zarik Yesayan a handshake or a hug, or to talk for a few moments while placing an order.
“It really shows that people have hearts,” said Art Yesayan, the eldest son.
Zarik Yesayan, who emigrated to the United States from Armenia as a contractor, says that it is not about money or the business.
“A big corporation is throwing a family out of business without giving us an explanation,” he claimed. “We’re trying to survive during tough economic times, and now they’re saying our time is up.”
The president of E&S Ring, John Pringle, said his company considers itself very loyal to its longtime tenants.
“We don’t take lightly our decision to let the bistro’s lease expire. We have retail tenants who have been with us for a long time,” Pringle told The Argonaut, noting that the complex’s nail salon and dry cleaner have been on the premises for approximately 15 years.
Pringle said the management company conducted a survey of all the residents at Mariners Village that indicated they wanted a different operator at the location. According to E&S Ring, tenants specifically noted dissatisfaction with what Pringle called “inconsistent” operating hours, service and the menu.
“We have received lots of alternate feedback from residents who are looking for a different operator,” Pringle said.
That’s news to Clark Shattuck, a Mariners Village resident since 1994. Shattuck acknowledged that the complex does send out an annual questionnaire.
“But I highly doubt that a lot of people would say that they didn’t like the bistro,” he said.
Pringle said county officials had been notified about the potential change in tenancy.
Gary Jones, deputy director of asset management and planning at the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, confirmed that Pringle recently notified the county about the planned change in tenancy. Jones said that he had not seen the survey and also did not know about the signature gathering campaign.
“I was unaware of that,” he said.
The Yesayans’ lease suggests that the original owner had an option in the agreement, according to Vicken Papazian, the family’s attorney.
“The developers entered into a lease with the county to provide services and to do what’s in the best interests of the residents of Los Angeles County,” Papazian said. “It seems to me that shutting down a business that is coveted and profitable is the wrong thing to do.”
Papazian was skeptical of the survey as well.
“I think the fact that E&S Ring has not shared this survey speaks volumes,” the attorney asserted.
The Yesayan sons are proud of their father, and they recall how he once catered an event at the complex’s pool when the caterer did not show. The bistro stepped in and provided over 100 pizzas to the 500 to 600 guests.
“He’s done a lot of things for the community, and that’s why people respect him so much,” Art Yesayan said.
Pringle challenged the number of signatures on the petition, which he claims are not all residents of Mariners Village.
“There are a significant number of residents who don’t live (at Mariners Village) who signed the petition,” he alleged.
A review of the petition, of which The Argonaut obtained, shows signatures from some people who live in cities like Burbank and locals who live in other areas of Marina del Rey. The majority of signatures on the petition, which lists the name and addresses of those who signed it, correspond with streets on Mariners Village property.
The company has cast a wide net in search for a new tenant in place of the bistro, and a new operator has been chosen.
“We have had over a dozen inquiries and proposals from different operators and we’ve selected one of them,” Pringle said.
The prospective new tenant is a Marina del Rey-based enterprise, he says.
“We’re very excited about them,” the E&S Ring executive added. “They will be a real plus.”
Zarik Yesarayn says the most painful part of the ordeal, besides possibly leaving his clients and his employees potentially being laid off, is not being given any specific reason why his family was not given an opportunity to continue.
“I can’t tell my customers why they are making us leave because no one has told us anything,” he claimed. “Just go, like we’re being thrown out with no explanation.”
That, says Shattuck, a tenant representative at Mariners Village, is one of the more troubling aspects of what he and others allege is a bid to evict a respected operator.
“The saddest part of this is the reflection of a culture that does not explain to human beings why they want to do this,” he asserted.
Cole, the jazz musician, visits the bistro when he is in town and has known the Yesayans for five years.
“They are the kind of people that you feel like you’ve known all of your life,” said Cole, whose girlfriend resides in Mariners Village.
Shattuck says that the food and the service are only part of what makes the bistro so special.
“They’re all such wonderful people, but Zarik especially, is like a beam of light,” he said. “He radiates this warmth and creates this environment that makes going there such a memorable experience, and that translates to the food and the service.”
Pringle said the operator that his company has chosen to replace the bistro will expand delivery service to the residents of the complex, provide expanded operating hours and introduce an Internet café and a larger menu.
“We’ve selected the best operator that we feel will serve our residents’ needs,” he said.
The new tenant will be announced shortly, Pringle said, after lease negotiations have concluded.
“Our new operator will generate as much revenue as the current operator,” he predicted. “They will also provide better service, because they have much more experience than the current operator.
Papazian said his clients are considering litigation, and he feels that they have a strong case.
“Nothing is off the table,” he
said. “But we are hoping that the county will carefully weigh what has transpired and will consider the best wishes of the residents.”
Art Yesayan says that his family remains hopeful that they will be allowed to stay in the location where they have spent five happy years.
“Out of every crisis, something good can happen,” he said. “Perhaps this is the time that the county will step in and begin to fight for the little guy, the small businessman.”