On Sunday, the Lower East Side bid a tearful adieu to Fontana’s. And we do mean tearful. “There was a lot of crying men,” said owner Holly Ferrari. “Really crying — men with long hair and beards, all weeping.” You guessed it: A massive rent hike forced Ferrari and co-owners, Mary Finn and Deannie Wheeler, to shutter their beloved bar and music venue after 11 years on Eldridge Street. We poured out a little happy-hour Jameson for our homegirls and got on the phone with Ferrari.
I know, I know. But rent increased and we weren’t able to run the kind of place we wanted to run for what we had to charge. We were forced to make our drink prices higher and changing the type of music we played. It was really unfortunate but the landlord would not negotiate with us at all.
The business is very different now. It’s not the same business we went into 20 years ago. Without dissing the customers, the customers are different. It’s harder to make a buck because overhead, insurance and everything is all higher.
We started with a 10-year lease paying $10,000 a month. By the end of the lease it was almost $15,000. Then to stay longer we paid $20,000 but the landlord wouldn’t sign a full lease. It was like; here is 3 months and 6 months. Why we’re leaving is because he wanted $30,000. We were able to do the $5,000 increase for a year, but we couldn’t do a $15,000 increase. That’s beyond.
No, he wouldn’t even speak to us. We don’t know why he wouldn’t. We don’t know at all the reason for any of this. We tried to have meetings with him. He’s Japanese and we hired a translator, but our landlord was not willing to get involved with anything. The guy we had to deal with is the agent for the landlord and we could never get past him.
We are unclear of what they want to do with the space. When we couldn’t come to an agreement on what they wanted to charge us, Ray started to show the place and then he stopped. We asked why and he wouldn’t say. It’s all been weird. We don’t know. We would have liked to sell and transfer over all those licenses but since he stopped we can’t do any of that.
He’s Ray Abramyck. He runs our space and the space next to us, it’s all the same building. He’s the father of Matt (and Jack) Abramyck, who did the Beatrice with Paul Sevigny. He’s the agent for the landlord. He’s also a broker. Matt owned Super Linda and Navy. His wife owns Tenoverten. They have all those Tribeca places. The sons tried to open something in that space next door because that space has the sweetheart deal, very low rent, $13,000. And then for our space, which is bigger but not triple in size if you want to go by square feet, they want $30,000. The neighbors had a shit fit and they didn’t get the go ahead. They went ahead and got the 12:30am license, but now there’s some other guys I heard looking to do something that are friends of theirs. I don’t know if Ray wants it for his sons, or why they didn’t even try to buy us out. Everyone in the neighborhood is curious because it affects them.
We’re selling the guts of the business, the contents of the bar right now over the next few days. Everything will go from the sinks and booths to the glassware and tap system. We’d love for someone to come in and rent it and be a tenant so we can transfer our licenses, but Ray stopped showing it.
Tired. I’m not happy, I’m definitely sad. It’s bittersweet. We knew it was time for a while, but still it’s always hard to say goodbye to everybody. Really, really hard. I felt like I lost a limb when I woke up the other morning. Especially because everyone — the staff and customers were so heartbroken. It made us really realize how much it meant to everyone. It really hits when people write notes and give speeches. Sunday was really sad.
Well, we’re not CBGBs or Don Hill’s, those are iconic places. Maybe it was because we weren’t those places. We had a strong sense of family. We were three women running a bar and I think we created a really nurturing environment for bands, parties, customers, and regulars. We were down to earth, me, Deannie and Mary. I mean, I’m reading what everyone is writing about us and I guess it was that we were all so hands-on and family-like. We didn’t treat people as customers or staff; they were also our friends.
It’s amazing that we were three women running this business. Still to this day the business is mostly if not all men. There’s nothing wrong with working with men, and to be fair there are more and more women owners, but it’s still way less common. One of the guys said during our closing night in his speech when everyone was all rowdy and spraying champagne on each other, he was one of our previous bartenders, and he said, “After working for you guys I could only work for women.” And he’s not kidding. Since he left us he’s only worked for women.
Everyone is going to do something different. We’re a little burnt out in the nightlife industry. I know I am, personally. I have done it for 20 years — I bartended before owning. Deannie is going to head back down to Austin to be with her family in the fall. Mary is moving to Florida. I’m staying here for now. I want to pursue other interests. Maybe something in the Catskills where I have a property and do yoga retreats with cooking classes, weddings, something in the wellness industry. I have some friends I’ve spoken to who want to do that with me.
Wild Pete Macy will take a break, he says. When he gave his speech he explained he needs to mourn. I loved what he said. It was something like: “I never felt like I was the trivia guy who worked at Fontana’s, I felt like I was the Fontana’s guy who did trivia.” On his last trivia night everyone was crying. He’s a metal guy and he sang, “I Did It My Way” while doing trivia. It was really moving and the place was packed. Again, there were lots of longhaired, bearded guys weeping.
Gosh, there are so many. Recently, our sound guy left the smoke machine on over night so when the porter arrived the next day he frantically called the fire department and they all discovered it was nothing.
Yes. There is a common theme that you find landlords use to bait people into these neighborhoods and onto these blocks where there is low foot traffic. They give you this low rent because of that low traffic. So then you make all these improvements to the space, you add a new hot water heater, a new AC, and you have your low rent and you have your nice space. Your business helps make the neighborhood more friendly, and soon you bring more foot traffic to the block which raises the value of real estate for everyone, and then that’s when you get kicked out.
We paid our rent all the time on time, and often early. There is no reward for being a good tenant. We did everything right. We paid all our bills; we paid our rent early, we’ve paid a percentage of their real estate taxes, and at the end of it to be treated like shit is totally disappointing. To be told goodbye and that’s it is terrible.
I wish there was more protection in New York City for small businesses. The landlords have to hold some responsibility and they never ever do. In the press all you see is how everyone is mad at the bars for the noise, but the landlords love renting to the bars because they can get more rent money out of us. In New York, the landlords are untouchable. We can badmouth them but they just can’t be touched. They don’t have to be good to the tenants that were good to them. Why don’t landlords ever have to pay fines? They have no responsibility.