The New York Times and the demise of the Bagel Café

      On Labor Day (September 1) the NYT ran a story about the imminent demise of the Bagel Café, a 24-hour business forced out of the location it had occupied for 25 years in the Bronx’s Bay Plaza shopping center.

       The story focused on the deterioration of the relationship between the café’s owner, 60-year-old Charles Maselli, and his landlord, Prestige Properties, a relationship ending in an induced “failure of communications” and the ensuing refusal by the landlord to extend the lease. The lease expired in March and Maselli stayed on a month-by-month basis for about $2,500 more, raising the rent to $17,500 per month. But that was not good enough for Prestige Properties and Maselli was served with an eviction notice. He will fight it in court on September 11.

      The story by David Gonzales traces the manner in which Prestige Properties and Maselli did not confront the real issues at stake. Prestige Properties is completing an indoor shopping mall, adjacent to the outdoor one in which the Bagel Café and other business have for many years served the area’s customers, particularly those from the near-by Co-op City housing complex. The new mall will include several chain restaurants, including Olive Garden and Joe’s Crab Shack, but no questions were asked about any promises that might have made to them about the “elimination” of less pricey competitors right outside the mall’s doors.

      And there’s the rub ignored in the Times story. Who benefits and who loses by the “demise” of the Bagel Café? The new mall’s leasing agent for Prestige Properties, Jerry Welkis, told the paper that Maselli had failed to meet “the highest standards consistent with a first-class shopping experience.” Readers should understand that those standards really spell “$tandard$.” Maselli claims he was willing to make changes but received no replies to the calls he made about them to Prestige Properties and that they thus deliberately let the time to initiate them run out.

      Patrons of the Bagel Café, where the menu posted on the Internet features Eggs on a bagel for $2.49, French toast or Pancakes for $ 2.99, a Meatball Hero for $ 3.99 and a Philly Cheesesteak for $ 4.99, understood who, other than Maselli, will lose from the café’s disappearance. “We need this place,” Nathan Punter, manager of a clothing store near the café, said. Apparently the construction workers finishing the new mall agreed and showed up there regularly. Punter offered a sound explanation for Prestige Properties’ behavior: “Maybe the landlord just wants corporate store, even though there are enough of them.” If he is right, how much more income do they provide Prestige Properties than the independent operators like Maselli? We don’t find out. The space of the Bagel Café has already been leased to a new tenant, but we don’t learn who that is and how much he’s paying per month.

      Maselli has the final word in the story: “All those politicians talk about small business being the backbone of this country,” he said. There is no such thing as small business anymore. Nothing’s left. It’s just not right. I’ll go to court and maybe I’ll lose. But I want to make a stand.”

     The story tells Maselli’s encounter with the commercial real estate development and restaurant chains, but doesn’t put it into a wider context. Travelers observe the disappearance of small, independent business in every town in America. Who has benefitted financially from this decades-old steamroller? Who has lost out and in how many ways? The Times story takes place in the Bronx and ran in the Metropolitan New York section. It called out for an All-American frame and bit of history for readers outside the Bronx, in the Anytowns USA, watching their small businesses biting the dust.

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