What’s happening with the Juniper Café?

Kingstonist file photo of the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning.

Earlier this week, many coffee fans and art lovers alike were shocked to read on social media that the Juniper Café at the Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning would be closing its doors.

What’s happened and what is happening has been difficult to follow; it all started publicly when a letter authored by Juniper Café owner Amber Thom began to circulate on social media on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. That letter alleges a number of things: That the owners are “being forced out” of the café; that they have “been nothing short of terrorized” by former and current members of the Tett Centre Board of Directors; and that a revised one-year lease, which replaced their original 10-year lease, is “being used as a tool against” them. The entire letter, which the Juniper owners have claimed was never meant to be shared online, can be read here in a petition that was created to keep the café operating.

Later that same day, the owners of the Juniper Café indicated on social media that they had been in discussions with City staff and were confident their doors would remain open. Then, on Wednesday, Jan. 16, the Juniper made a post on Instagram that indicated they hadn’t renewed their lease and that their lease expires at the end of the month, a fact corroborated by members of the Tett Centre Board. In that post, the owners ask their supporters to sign the petition.

Over the same time period, the Tett Centre posted the following on their website:

“The Tett Centre for Creativity and Learning (TCCL) acknowledges the concerns that so many of you have expressed about the future of the well-loved Juniper Café, which has been part of the Tett Centre since 2016.

Our Board understands that many of you are looking for answers, and find it frustrating that they are not available just yet.

Please know that discussions are literally underway and the Tett Board, together with the City and others, are working flat-out to find a solution very soon that will provide continuity of excellent café service at the Tett. They respectfully ask for your patience and understanding, and please do not trouble our staff, Nadine Baker and Danielle Folkerts, who are awaiting the very same answers.”

As many people pointed out on social media, that statement does not indicate that The Juniper Café will remain at the Tett Centre.

In the interest of clarity, it is important to understand that the City of Kingston owns the Tett Centre, and that the Board of Directors at the Tett Centre act as the intermediary landlord between The City and the business in the resident café space – which is owned by the Tett Centre, including a majority of the equipment in it, according to David Kerr, chair of the Tett Centre Board. Additionally, the Juniper Café is operated by Epicurious Catering, which is owned by Thom and her husband, Jamie Hodges.

We reached out to the owners of the Juniper Café several times and have not received any response. For their part, the City of Kingston responded with the following statement:

“The City is aware of the concerns expressed about the future of the well-loved Juniper Café, which has called the Tett Centre home since 2016,” said Peter Huigenbos, director of real estate and environmental initiatives for the City of Kingston.

“The City is working to find a solution that will continue to provide excellent café service at the Tett. We hope to facilitate this solution for all parties by the end of this week to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy a service at the cafe. We ask for patience and understanding.”

And while Kerr said he was unable to discuss many of the issues surrounding what is happening to the Juniper and the café space within the Tett Centre due to ongoing negotiations, he was able to shed some light on historical happenings and a few of the allegations levelled in the letter from Thom.

With regard to the letter’s allegations, including that the rent for the Juniper Café had increased by 400 per cent, Kerr said most of the issues Thom raised in the letter had been addressed by the “amendment and extension agreement” one-year lease – the same one-year lease Thom called a “probationary lease” in the letter.

“The letter cites historical matters such as air conditioning, back rent, and garbage removal that were all resolved by a single signed agreement last year, and there are no outstanding issues in this regard,” Kerr said.

That lease indeed expires on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019. However, there is a reason the Board at the Tett Centre hadn’t made any attempt to renew that lease with Epicurious Catering, Kerr explained.

“In August, that’s five months before the scheduled end of their lease which is the 31 of January, weeks from now, Epicurious came to the board and they said they had reached a decision that they wanted to sell their business and move on to other projects,” Kerr said.

“I cannot speak for why they made this decision, but they did notify us that they intended to sell their business and move on to other projects in approximately the summer of 2019.”

For all parties, this meant figuring out what would happen with the café space at the Tett Centre. According to Kerr, Epicurious Catering indicated that they wanted to find a buyer for their business.

“Sounds good, right? It sounded good to us, too! Let me be quite clear: I have a great deal of respect for everything they’ve done from the point of view of running a café. I mean, the café is top notch, and it understandably has the reputation of being one of the best, if not the best café in Kingston! It’s fantastic!” Kerr expressed.

The Board waited to hear from Epicurious Catering or a potential buyer, but heard nothing. By the time December rolled around, having still not heard anything from or about a potential buyer, the Board decided they couldn’t hold off the Request for Proposal (RFP) process (which is necessary for them to fill the café space themselves) any longer.

“So we started our own process and that is ongoing… We have absolutely not chosen a new operator, sneakily or otherwise,” Kerr explained.

“Even though the letter implies that Epicurious is being forced out, that’s not true. Their lease is scheduled to come to an end on January 31, 2019. We’re not forcing them out early, their lease is coming to an end,” he continued.

At this point, no decision has been made as to what will happen with the café space, according to all parties. Councillor Peter Stroud, who represents the district where the Tett Centre and the Juniper Café are located, could not be reached for comment pursuant to an un-rescinded request that Kingstonist staff not contact him.

Kingstonist will continue to monitor this situation and provide as much information as possible.

With files from Nour Mazloum.

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