I returned from vacation to the disturbing news that the complex of restaurants on the corner of 26th and Nicollet owned by Tom Pham was suddenly shuttering its doors, to be replaced by something called Wanderous in the old Olive Garden space downtown. Nothing about this story made sense to me: Azia and the Caterpillar Lounge are busy nearly every night, and Pham just dumped a pile of money into redecorating and rebranding his sushi bar, once Anemoni, now A-25. So I started making some calls. Here’s the scoop:
Turns out that the issue is the building Azia, the Caterpillar Lounge, and A-25 are all sited in. Pham and his landlord, Huey Fung—who also owns the Icehouse studios, the abandoned Tacos Morelos site, and about half of the block of Nicollet between 25th and 26th Street, including Jasmine Deli—have had a long, litigious, and difficult history. Pham says the building is in serious disrepair, and it’s costing him unsustainable amounts of money to correct problems that aren’t his to correct. The straw that broke the camel’s back: The building is six years out-of-compliance with a federal regulation requiring the rain leders (that take rainwater away from commercial properties) to use a separate system than the regular sewer system, and every time it rains, all of Azia’s rainwater ends up in Azia’s basement. Remember that big storm a few weeks ago, the one that had cars floating around I-35 and in front of Rudolph’s Barbecue? Pham says that one reached all the way to his restaurant kitchen, requiring a $20,000 clean-up. (Sources confirmed for me that Pham’s landlord does indeed have thousands of dollars of fines for non-compliance on this and other property issues.) “If every time it rains it costs me twenty thousand dollars, my life is ruined,” Pham told me. “I have 65 employees to take care of. We’ve gone to court [with Fung] so many, many times, the city has ordered him to fix things, and he never does. And I love, love, love this neighborhood, and my blood, sweat, and tears are in that corner. It breaks my heart to walk away. But I have to do something to try to save myself and my employees.”
That’s horrible! A successful, neighborhood-anchoring, tax-generating business being driven out of business by a disinterested landlord? Can’t someone do something? Someone may be. Turns out that Pham met last week with Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, Minneapolis City Council member Robert Lilligren, and others in an effort to save Azia. Robert Lilligren told me that nearby business owners want the city to somehow step in and seize the property. “Now, we can’t do that. It’s not right, and even if we could you wouldn’t like it if we did it to you,” notes Lilligren. There are, however, other options. Lilligren notes he has connected Azia’s business principals to resources within the city that could help. More significantly, there are some back-channel efforts under way to help Fung to sell the property to a developer more interested in maintaining and developing the property, and Pham and this developer are already in agreement to keep Azia there if and when the sale goes through. If the sale doesn’t go through, there may be yet a plan C and even a plan D to make it work.
If there was a new landlord, would you stay? I asked Pham. “Absolutely, in a heartbeat,” said Pham. “I would keep it exactly the way it is, it’s working great. And I love and love and love that neighborhood.”
“The city is trying to help with an eye toward maintaining the corner, it’s a really happening intersection,” says council member Lilligren. “But right now it looks like a big vortex of uncertainty.”
So, don’t count Azia out just yet. And if you have a frenzied feeling of wanting to do something to help, your options include visiting Azia and giving them a really nice financial statement to show their possible next landlord, or dropping the Mayor a line telling him that you think it’s a good use of city resources to keep thriving Minneapolis businesses thriving in Minneapolis.