Café Europa has a loyal and passionate following, but the Greensboro City Council doesn’t care.
About 40 supporters of Café Europa on North Davie Street attended the Greensboro City Council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 6, and waved copies of the iconic logo for the restaurant to show their support. Nine speakers and the owner, Jakub Pucilowski, spoke during speakers from the floor.
Most talked about how much Café Europa meant to them, saying that it was much more than a restaurant but a community, where weddings were celebrated, memorial services held and the employees were friends.
Most expressed confusion and angst about the way Café Europa is being treated by the city.
Café Europa has been in the city-owned Cultural Center building for 18 years and the lease has been regularly renewed. However, the current lease expires April 30 and, instead of the city renegotiating the lease with a long time tenant that has been successful in a space where many restaurants have failed, Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson decided to turn the lease over to Greensboro Downtown Parks Inc. (GDPI).
GDPI didn’t negotiate a new lease but put the space out for a request for proposals (RFP) from anyone interested in using the space. The RFP also states that the owner of Café Europa will be an “independent contractor” for GDPI and GDPI will have the right to determine the days and hours the restaurant is open. Furthermore, whoever is in the space will have to agree to pay a percentage of its gross revenue in addition to the lease payment.
This has upset the Café Europa community.
John Woolsley described himself as “A loyal customer of one of downtown Greensboro’s icons, Café Europa.”
Wolsley said, “A loyal small business is being auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
He noted that 60 percent of new restaurants don’t survive a year, so the smarter business decision might be to negotiate with Café Europa rather than bringing in a new restaurant.
Several speakers described Café Europa as the closest thing Greensboro has to a European bistro, making it unique in the city.
Jeffrey Barbour questioned the business judgment of the decision and said that forcing Café Europa out “speaks to something very crucial about who we are as a city.”
He also noted that there was some apparent impropriety involved since the assistant city manager, who made the decision, and the head of GDPI, had a relationship.
He questioned the city’s ultimate goal and said, “Café Europa is not a cash cow. Nobody is getting rich.”
He said about Pucilowski, “He’s going to lose his business, his livelihood. Please look inside your hearts and figure out who we are in this city.”
Tim Anderson noted the lack of communication between the city and Café Europa about its future and between GDPI and Café Europa.
He said, “It appears that the city never let Café Europa know that it was giving the lease to GDPI.”
He also questioned why Café Europa was being treated so differently from all the other tenants in the Cultural Center building, which have their leases with the city.
Bo Haeberle said he was a former employee and that people had forgotten how bad downtown Greensboro looked when Café Europa opened 18 years ago.
He said that he understood that this was not an issue for the City Council initially, but with so many people upset about the city’s decision, the council should step in and take a look at how the decision was made.
He also noted that Café Europa had persevered through all the construction and having Davie Street closed.
He said, “A lot of people are emotionally attached to this little restaurant.”
Jim Thompson said that he loved the restaurant and the food, but didn’t like the soup. He said when he talked to Pucilowski about the possibility of putting in a gate to the patio so that people like his wife, who is in a wheelchair, could eat out on the patio, he didn’t think anything would come of it. He said the next thing he knew there was a sidewalk and a gate.
Allen Martin told the City Council, “You should be ashamed of yourselves. The way this is being handled is a disgrace.”
Brian Mullins said, “If you sweep a business like Café Europa aside, like it appears that we are about to do, we are a town without identity, without character.”
Pucilowski spoke last for the group and, before he spoke, City Attorney Tom Carruthers said that because the RFP for the Café Europa space issued by GDPI stated that anyone submitting an RFP could not speak to any member of the GDPI board or selection committee, that members of the GDPI board should leave the room.
Both Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Councilmember Justin Outling are members of the GDPI board. So Carruthers asked that they leave the room. Vaughan said that they were not on the selection committee but were on the board, and Carruthers said it would be best for them to leave.
Vaughan said, “It does seem kind of silly.” But the two left the room. It’s the first time in anyone’s memory that the mayor has been removed from a meeting.
After many impassioned words by Café Europa supporters, Pucilowski simply asked that the RFP deadline be extended by a week to see if things could be worked out. It seemed to be a reasonable request.
As has become par for the course, first the City Council discussed discussing the matter. Councilmember Yvonne Johnson asked that time be set aside at the City Council retreat on Thursday, Feb. 8 to discuss what they had heard, and that request was discussed for a while.
Outling objected to using the time that the City Council had scheduled to set priorities and discuss the biggest issues facing the city discussing Café Europa.
He said the council had had all the information about Café Europa for weeks and should discuss it during the meeting.
Johnson said, “This is the first time I’ve heard from the people and to me that makes a difference.”
There appeared to be support on the City Council for at least taking a look at how things had been done by the city, and the request for an extension might have been granted except for the fact that the City Council took a 20-minute break before discussing Café Europa. During that break, those in favor of doing something were convinced by Outling and others that it was not a good idea.
Councilmember Marikay Abuzuaiter, who owned Mahi’s Seafood Grill for 22 years, might appear to be a natural supporter for Café Europa, but she lobbied hard for the city to do nothing.
When the City Council came back from its break, there wasn’t much left to discuss. It had all been taken care of in the back room.
Abuzuaiter waved a resolution around that Pucilowski had signed on Nov. 29 agreeing to a three month lease extension and having the lease turned over to GDPI and said that was plenty of notice.
Some might argue that the choice between signing a lease extension and going out of business is not much of a choice, but the City Council decided to do what it does best – nothing.