Burbank’s Corner Poke owners Jim Orozco and Brian Veskosky claim they’re getting pushed out by their landlord after Sweetfin, a nine-location poke restaurant chain popular with influencers and supported with investment money, leased an adjacent space that would directly compete with it.
According to Veskosky, Corner Poke, which opened in June 2018, received an offer from Sweetfin in June 2020 to sublease its 284-square-foot space on the busy corner of Riverside and Maple for a pickup and delivery-only spot. The corner storefront had been closed this year beginning in mid-March due to the pandemic, but reopened on June 8. Veskosky and Orozco offered to sublease the space to Sweetfin for $150,000, which they thought was fair considering the improvements they had made to the building’s interior and exterior, including HVAC, plumbing, and electrical upgrades. Sweetfin countered with $20,000, a fractional offer that Veskosky and Orozco rejected.
Six days later, Veskosky and Orozco discovered Sweetfin had leased the next door Soup Goddess restaurant, which shares a wall with Corner Poke and is owned by the same landlord. The issue resurfaced this week when Corner Poke posted a large sign on its front door alleging that Sweetfin attempted to buy its business for “pennies on the dollar” and then leased a prominent storefront next to it. Sweetfin had, in fact, rented a small bungalow on the other side of the corner space to use as a walk-in cooler and storage, essentially sharing walls with Corner Poke on both sides. The sign concludes by saying Sweetfin is trying to put them out of business.
A spat on Twitter ensued, with Sweetfin saying Corner Poke’s claims are “completely false” and that it’s unfortunate the neighbors “had to stoop to pettiness.” Sweetfin also asserted the landlord was to blame here, saying that the management company provided poor guidance to both Sweetfin and Corner Poke. Corner Poke (under Red Maple Cafe’s account) refuted the claim, leading to various attempts to undermine each other’s credibility.
Before Orozco and Veskosky opened Corner Poke, it was a gelato and coffee shop for Red Maple Cafe, an all day restaurant they own in the same building that opened in May 2017. Orozco and Veskosky then moved the gelato and coffee bar to the back of the building and changed it over to a poke spot, which has had a successful run in the past few years catering to nearby office and studio businesses.
Typically in lease situations, landlords and tenants can work out a scenario that prevents unnecessary competition among the tenants, called restrictive covenants. When they negotiated their lease for Red Maple Cafe, Orozco and Veskosky made sure that any future leases in the building would be prohibited from selling more than nine percent of sales from sandwiches and salads. Likewise, Red Maple Cafe was prohibited from selling more than nine percent of sales of juices because of the small juice bar that was operated by Soup Goddess at the time. When Orozco and Veskoksy opened Corner Poke, they did not write in an exclusion for businesses selling raw fish bowls. However, Veskosky contends that because Sweetfin sells plant-based salads and bowls (which is part of its Plant Shop concept), the landlord may be in breach of the lease agreement.
Veskosky had their lawyer send a letter to the landlord saying the Sweetfin occupancy may be a breach of their lease agreement. The landlord did not respond to that letter but instead sent one back to Orozco and Veskosky saying they had breached their lease agreement because Corner Poke was not open for at least seven hours a day. Typically in leases, an agreement to stay open for a minimum number of hours a day is supposed to ensure the area looks busy during regular business hours. During the pandemic, with lower sales due to closed offices and studios, Corner Poke had reduced hours to save on labor costs. Although Corner Poke began serving food on June 8, the door to its storefront remained closed and locked with a sign telling customers to pick up their poke orders next door at Red Maple Cafe.
Reached by email, Sweetfin partner Seth Cohen said they were looking for lease opportunities that would expand the company’s delivery radius, knowing it would save money to take over a space that wouldn’t require a full buildout and conversion to a licensed restaurant. Because Corner Poke rejected its offer of $20,000, Sweetfin decided to take over the next door Soup Goddess space because it wouldn’t require any key money (a downpayment required to lease a property).
Cohen says the landlord told him Orozco and Veskoksy had agreed to reconceptualize the Corner Poke space, which made sense at the time since, from his understanding, Corner Poke was not operating its poke storefront. In hindsight, Cohen realized he should have reached out to Orozco and Veskosky directly to confirm the situation instead of taking the landlord’s word.
After a tense confrontation in which Cohen says he was verbally assaulted by Veskosky in front of the restaurant, he attempted to assuage the situation by apologizing in an email. In an email to Veskosky and Orozco, Cohen wrote he was surprised to hear that the two were unaware that Sweetfin would be taking over the next door space, that their goal was “to be great neighbors,” and that he hoped Sweetfin would drive foot traffic to Red Maple Cafe.
In his email to Eater, Cohen ended with a similar note about his intention for Sweetfin to be a good neighbor. “We have earned respect in the communities we serve by having good rapport with the neighboring businesses, our landlords and the locals so it is unfortunate that Red Maple is falsely accusing us of acting in bad faith here, and using the current climate to try to exacerbate those claims.”
Update: Upon request for comment, landlord Ratner Property management provided the following statement:
Due to pending litigation with Red Maple Cafe/Corner Poke, we cannot comment on this specific tenant. However, we can provide a comment related to Sweetfin. Prior to approaching us, Sweetfin negotiated directly with Corner Poke to take over the lease of the approximately 280 square foot corner space. After Corner Poke declined to accept Sweetfin’s offer for the takeover of the space, we presented Sweetfin the opportunity to take over the lease of their current space. The previous tenant had been behind in rent, and, upon assuming the lease, Sweetfin paid all of the outstanding obligations, including all back rent amounts, effectively absolving the prior tenant of all remaining financial obligations pertaining to the space.
When the new lease was signed, Sweetfin was under the impression that the owners of Red Maple Cafe/Corner Poke were fully aware that Sweetfin would be their new neighbor. Additionally, Sweetfin believed that Corner Poke planned to either change their concept or sublease their space to another tenant so that there would be no direct competition with Corner Poke. Sweetfin and its operators took good faith measures at each step in this process to consider the best interests of each party involved, and it is plainly inaccurate to frame this scenario as anything otherwise. Although we cannot specifically comment on the allegations made against us by Red Maple Cafe/Corner Poke, we do plan on defending ourselves to the fullest extent as we went out of our way to be accommodating during these tough times.