News: The Struggle Over Simone's

Fountain Square in play as restaurant fights for survival

Jun 22, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Joe Wessels

The group redesigning Fountain Square wants Roland "Atif" Randolph, owner of Simone's, to open a restaurant there. But Simone's is struggling to stay open.

A heated feud that traces back to the day Simone's opened could end up closing the popular Walnut Hills eatery.

After being open only a year, restaurant owner Roland "Atif" Randolph has been sued by his landlord, DeSales Plaza LLC, for not paying his rent. At dispute is whether Randolph was promised three months free rent at the beginning of his contract, among other issues.

A May 27 hearing in a lower eviction court was bound over to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court after Randolph filed a counter-suit for damages exceeding $25,000. The case now goes before Judge John Andrew West, but no trial date has been set. An exact damage amount will not be disclosed until trial, according to Arthur Harmon, Simone's attorney.

Lawyers for both sides believe the matter likely will be resolved before a trial, but Tabitha M. Hochsheid, attorney for DeSales Plaza, says her clients asked her not to elaborate. She referred questions to DeSales employee Ken Segal, who didn't return a reporter's calls.

Harmon says he thinks the matter will be resolved and Simone's famously diverse and loyal patrons won't have to find another place to eat.

"I am confident that the restaurant will be there and it's not going anywhere," he says.

Harmon acknowledges he has heard about heated exchanges between the two sides at various times since the restaurant opened, but won't go into details. Both sides have their story and both sides might have valid issues, he says.

Randolph says DeSales officials pushed him to open at the location because he is African-American and the company needed minority ownership to qualify for government subsidies. But he says he doesn't know which subsidy programs DeSales participated in.

"They liked it because it was a minority-owned restaurant and they had goals for me," Randolph says. "They hand-picked me to be a part of their development."

If Simone's fails, Randolph says he wants out of the restaurant business altogether, which would nix plans being touted by the Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC). Responsible for re-shaping Fountain Square, 3CDC has approached Randolph about opening a restaurant like Simone's on the redesigned square.

In presentations around the city, Stephen Leeper, 3CDC's president and chief operating officer, has repeatedly told audiences about bringing a Simone's to the square, with live Jazz music, along with other restaurants. But Randolph says that if he were forced to close his Walnut Hills restaurant he'd no longer consider a downtown location.

Randolph says he has paid all he owes for his current location — and has an e-mail and three witnesses that say he was given his first months free. In an interview in April, DeSales owners said no such promise was made. What Randolph says was an oral agreement didn't make it into the final lease, and this has been the sticking point to resolving the issues.

A period of free rent and other concessions for a business opening in a new location aren't unheard of but certainly aren't automatic.

"It's deal by deal," says Steven Timmel, senior sales vice president of Grubb & Ellis West Shell, one of the leading commercial real estate firms in Cincinnati. "It's negotiated between a buyer and a landlord. You'd be remiss saying it's an industry standard."

Randolph also claims DeSales owners already have designs on a new tenant at the Simone's location. Harmon says no mention of such a plan has come up in talks with DeSales representatives.

Other issues — including the ability to stage live Jazz and have outdoor seating and disputes over who would pay for a restaurant cash register system and appliances — also have the two sides in conflict, Randolph says. The disputes have cost the restaurant business another $30,000 on top of the $195,000 already invested, Randolph says.

If he's forced to pay, Randolph says he'll be forced into bankruptcy and the restaurant — heralded as a crowning achievement in Cincinnati's revitalization efforts — would immediately shut its doors.

On top of the money issues, Randolph accuses DeSales employees of coming into his restaurant demanding special service and harassing employees and customers. DeSales also removed Simone's patio furniture and placed it in storage and wouldn't say where it was being kept, according to Randolph. Without the furniture for patrons to sit outside, Randolph says he'd lose $30,000 monthly in revenue during warmer months — income he was counting on to keep afloat.

In April, the same day CityBeat contacted DeSales representatives, Randolph showed a reporter a faxed letter from DeSales Plaza LLC. In it, DeSales officials told him free storage of his patio furniture had ended and he had 30 days to pick it up or begin paying storage fees. Randolph says the furniture was taken without his asking.

The tables, chairs and sun umbrellas were back on the sidewalk shortly thereafter. ©