For the second time in the span of one year, the second floor cafeteria in the William Shatner building will have a new restaurant at the start of the fall semester. Lola Rosa Xpress has not renewed their year-long lease, while Bamboo Bowl and Bocadillo will be staying.
In October 2012, the second floor tenants expressed several grievances with their location and with their relationship with SSMU. Grievances at that time included limited promotional opportunities, unexpected cleaning and equipment costs, and problems with repairs.
Unfortunately, for Eric Bieunais – the owner of Lola Rosa Milton, Lola Rosa Parc, and the now-defunct Lola Rosa Xpress – not all of those grievances were rectified by the end of the year, and Lola Rosa lost $30,000 in its year-long endeavour.
These grievances were compounded, Bieunais admitted, by a lack of proper planning on Lola Rosa’s part. “When we first signed the contract, to be honest with you, our first mistake was not [doing] a real check-up on the state of the kitchen itself,” Bieunais said in an interview with The Daily. “Also, we didn’t really…break down all the costs that would actually be involved.”
Some of these costs included renovations and purchasing equipment. One complaint from tenants in October was that repairs and renovations took too long. Restaurant owners are not allowed to outsource reparation and renovation to external services as SSMU merely subleases the space in the Shatner building from McGill University; all work is contracted out by McGill Facilities Operations and Development.
This, Bieunais explained, caused major problems and delays that affected business. In one case, the walk-in fridge at Lola Rosa broke. “When the walk-in fridge breaks [at the Milton location?], my walk-in fridge repair guy is here within two to three hours. [McGill’s repairman] took eight days. … That costs [a lot of money] and stress… I don’t see why [they] couldn’t find me a repair guy within a day.”
SSMU VP Finance and Operations Tyler Hofmeister acknowledged that delays could be long, but wrote in an email to The Daily, “All of this information was made explicit to Lola Rosa before the signing of their contract.”
According to Bieunais, the structure of the communication between Lola Rosa, SSMU, and McGill led to problems. “Information [went] from one person to the other, to the other, to the other, [only] to [end up with] the same person who first sent it. It was a lot of crossing [wires].”
Hofmeister disputed this, shifting the blame from SSMU, McGill, and the structure of their relationship, to Lola Rosa. “Lola Rosa consistently failed to respond to emails. Combined with that was the fact that their managers were rarely on the premises, which made communication difficult and slow.”
However, Bieunais pointed out several instances where he believed promises between SSMU and Lola Rosa were broken. In one, former SSMU VP Finance and Operations Jean-Paul Briggs promised that a feedback form would be distributed to students through a listserv in early November.
“What it said in the contract was that in December, there was going to be a survey among students [for feedback] that, normally, would have been given to us,” Bieunais said. “Nothing has been given to us. So we don’t know whether the survey has ever been made.”
In addition, promotional opportunities were slow to come for the restaurants. Although Hofmeister wrote in an email to The Daily, “SSMU replaced the old advertisements in September,” in October, Bocadillo co-owner Victor Gonzalez complained that there were still advertisements for Tiki Ming at that time.
In the end, it was not miscommunication or slow repairs that made Lola Rosa unable to renew their lease, but financial problems. “On our part, we made mistakes too. We thought we could make food on-site at the same price, at a lower price than we could make here [the Milton location], which was not true. We thought our reputation and our rent wouldn’t be an issue, because people would just crave Lola Rosa food … Big mistake as well.”
The rent was a major issue for Lola Rosa. Rent for a restaurant, Bieunais explained, should account for approximately 7-9 per cent of sales. In the Shatner building, according to Bieunais, Lola Rosa paid 15-16 per cent of their sales in rent.
Although the exact amount of rent was confidential, Hofmeister stated that Lola Rosa paid “less rent than the previous tenants, MTY [Tiki Ming, Franx Supreme, and Cultures], who remained tenants in the SSMU building for over 12 years.”
Bieunais pointed to the physical design of the second floor cafeteria as an impediment to sales, likening it to a “prison,” but also acknowledged a fundamental disconnect between Lola Rosa’s mandate and the space.
“Our concept also was not adapted to the actual food court,” he said. “Obviously it was not the same menu. I couldn’t put the same ingredients as I put in [the Milton location], because obviously the cost was too high for me so I have to save some money somewhere.”
In addition, because of the focus on made-from-scratch vegetarian food, Lola Rosa Xpress was unable to cut down from five employees – including a chef, chef’s assistant, dishwasher, food preparation, and cashier – whereas Bocadillo, for example, managed day-to-day operations with two employees.
Hofmeister was more critical of this apparent disconnect between mandate and execution. “Lola Rosa did not respect their initial commitment to their proposed menu,” Hofmeister wrote. “As a result; the food they served was priced too high, the quality of food did not match that of their Milton location, and their sales suffered.”
Hofmeister did not have any information at the time of publication about what new tenant would replace Lola Rosa Xpress for the 2013-14 academic year.
Disclaimer: One of our editors, Molly Korab, worked at Lola Rosa Xpress until early 2013. However, she was not involved in the writing of this story.