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Old North End Restaurant Says Landlord Is Forcing It Out

By and

Published April 4, 2023 at 1:13 p.m.
Updated April 5, 2023 at 10:29 a.m.

  • Derek Brouwer ©️ Seven Days
  • Little Morocco
Burlington’s Little Morocco Café will have to relocate or close because a prominent local landlord is more than doubling the rent on its Old North End space.

Ali Amani, manager of the restaurant since it opened at 294 North Winooski Avenue in 2018, has appealed to the public on social media in a bid to pressure the property owner, Jacob Hinsdale of Hinsdale Properties, to reverse course. The posts also tag Hinsdale’s wife, Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale (D-Chittenden-Southeast), although she is not involved in her husband’s business.

Amani shared with Seven Days the renewal notice that Hinsdale emailed him in March, offering a new five-year lease starting August 1 for $5,000 per month, more than twice the current rate of $1,875. Hinsdale told Seven Days he was raising the rent because he was frustrated with the tenant. The space is worth closer to $2,000 per month, Hinsdale estimated.

“I’m sick of dealing with him,” Hinsdale said of Amani. “It’s not worth it to me.”

The men had a charged encounter in September after Hinsdale gave Sam Nelis, a prospective new tenant and longtime local bartender and bar manager, a tour of the space, Amani said. The visit surprised Amani, who said he had expected to renew his lease with a reasonable increase. Amani and Hinsdale had words, during which, Amani alleged, the landlord said he was not interested in renting to “the likes of you” anymore. Hinsdale denies making the remark.

Following that exchange, Amani said, he listed the restaurant for sale with V/T Commercial for $125,000. He said he felt he had little choice but to try to recoup the $65,000 that it cost to convert the former office space into a restaurant. However, Hinsdale shared an email with Seven Days that showed the restaurant was previously listed for sale in 2021 for $185,000.

The restaurant’s plea for public support came days before Nelis had been scheduled to appear before Burlington’s Development Review Board to discuss a zoning change required to open a cocktail bar in the space. He said the hearing is off for now.

The news of the potential new bar, on top of the reported rent increase, sparked concern about gentrification in the Old North End, an ethnically diverse neighborhood where commercial and residential land values have spiked since the pandemic. Some residents had planned to protest outside the DRB meeting on Tuesday evening but are now gathering in front of the restaurant instead.

Nelis said he learned only recently about the landlord-tenant dispute and that he objects to Hinsdale's treatment of Little Morocco. Nelis said that when he saw the restaurant was for sale, he assumed it was not planning to renew its lease. It’s one of several potential sites he’s exploring.

"I'm just trying to find out what's possible in the space before I think about making an offer or negotiating a lease," Nelis said.

Hinsdale cited several grievances against Little Morocco’s management. He called the appearance of the exterior “embarrassing.” He said the restaurant’s grease trap repeatedly overflowed, though Little Morocco Café passed its most recent Vermont Department of Health inspection, Seven Days confirmed.

Communication from the restaurant managers was “erratic and unprofessional,” he said. “I was really, really hoping that it was going to be well run. It just has not been,” Hinsdale said.

Two other commercial tenants in the North Winooski building have not received such steep rent increases, they told Seven Days. Hinsdale’s company has recently rented much of the first-floor space to nightlife and entertainment businesses, including BurlyAxe Throwing, an indoor ax-throwing venue that also serves alcohol, and Despacito, a vegan bar and restaurant.

The clattering of axes that miss the mark was disrupting the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy, which has operated its public-access television studios from a second-floor office since the 1990s. Hinsdale Properties declined to pay to mitigate the noise, leaving the tenants to figure out solutions, said Channel 17 operations director Lauren-Glenn Davitian.

She suspects the landlord is pursuing an entertainment-centered vision for the property but said he hasn’t articulated it to her organization “except by giving these leases and not talking through the implications with the existing tenants.”

Hot Yoga Burlington owner Bill O'Connor said he thinks the tenants are compatible. “We’re pretty happy there,” he said.

A spread of food at Little Morocco Café in 2020 - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: JAMES BUCK
  • A spread of food at Little Morocco Café in 2020
Little Morocco's Amani said that through at least the end of the current lease, the restaurant plans to continue offering slow-cooked meat and vegetable tagines and mezze platters with freshly made hummus and smoky eggplant spread Monday through Saturday nights. He said a new chef will arrive from Morocco next week to join chef Noha Yaqout Yamani.

The community, he said, can support the restaurant by eating there.

“We're going to need a lot of money if we need to move to a different location,” Amani said, “and we're going to need some money if we have to go to court.”

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