Around this time last year, the owners of Morocco's restaurant took a rare step -- they launched a public campaign against their landlord. Coming to the City Council, restaurant co-owner Jawad Essadki warned that his Castro Street eatery would be doomed if his landlord's plans for redeveloping the site won city approvals.
Now one year later, that dire prediction seems to have come true. Development is moving forward with the city's blessing, and Morocco's has shuttered, leaving only an eviction notice taped to its front door. Essadki doesn't mince words about what happened. He alleges his landlord pulled a dirty trick by effectively doubling his monthly rent as a way to force him to close. He and his brother shuttered their restaurant and their juice bar, Phoenix, in April, making them the latest in a growing list of small businesses that have been priced out of Mountain View.
"When a landlord wants to get you out, they can just give you hell," he said. "For months now, I've been asking them for details of bills, and what they say is: 'Pay up or else."
His landlords say Essadki's account isn't true. Partners at GPR Ventures, the firm that owns the Morocco's building, fiercely deny that they sought to shutter the restaurant. They allege that they lost a small fortune after Essadki reneged on debts and then skipped town after his hopes were dashed for a "big payout" to buy him out of his lease.
"Why would we want this restaurant to go out of business? That doesn't help anybody," said Glen Yonekura, a GPR partner. "We were willing to discount their rent to try and keep them at the spot. That's the real story."
Both sides are now claiming to be the victim, saying they could take legal action for damages.
The story of what happened to Morocco's dates back to 2015, when GPR Ventures first acquired the property in what was reportedly a $6 million deal. The full-service restaurant, which also hosted performances by belly-dancers and magicians, had been open for four years at that site.
Contacting Essadki, 35, wasn't easy -- Since shutting down his Mountain View eateries, he is now living in Morocco with his family.
In Essadki's version of the story, his Mountain View restaurant had to close after years of uncertainty. Early on, he said, everyone seems to have gotten along pretty well. Essadki described his rent as staying stable even as he wondered what his new landlord was planning to do. It was clear GPR Ventures wanted to rebuild the site, and representatives later presented the city with plans for a four-story mixed-use project.
Essadki and his brother were a little annoyed as GPR managers suggested they retool their restaurant image and downsize to a smaller space. But Essadki said he couldn't get details on how his restaurant fit into the larger scheme of the developer's plans. That lack of communication went on for 18 months, he said.
Essadki's brother Sham was posting video blogs on Youtube and broadcasting them to the wider public through social media. One day before his landlord's project came up for city review, he posted a video indicating that the situation was headed for a showdown.
"When is a good time to get more aggressive?" he asks in the video. "At noon today if I don't get something in writing, we'll go to the next step. There's times when you have to step up for your rights."
Deal falls flat
That's when everyone agrees the relationship between landlord and tenant turned adversarial. The Essadki brothers rallied about a dozen residents to a June 2016 meeting to publicly oppose their landlord's development. It didn't matter: the project was still approved in a 5-2 vote with many council members urging the two parties to resolve their differences. After that, Essadki says he didn't hear a peep from GPR Ventures for months.
That silence ended earlier this year when attorneys for his landlord began requesting his proof of insurance. In February, the developers sent a legal letter warning Essadki they had discovered he was more than $43,000 behind in his lease payments, which they demanded he pay at the start of March. Essadki had been paying about $4,000 per month, but the landlords informed him his new rent had actually risen to $8,400 per month.
It was a total surprise, Essadki said. He strongly denies he bears responsibility for falling behind in payments. He points to repeated messages he sent to GPR Ventures dating back to 2015 asking if his rent and other costs would be increasing. The firm never answered him, he said.
"What's my fault in this? For a year and a half they never told us we weren't paying the right amount," he said. "Now they turn around and blame us for breaking the lease."
Morocco's had a lease that stretched through about 2025, capping the rent at about 30 percent under the market rate. But most of the additional sum being demanded by his landlord came from unrestricted fees dubbed "Common Area Maintenance," including insurances, property taxes and management.
GPR Ventures partners say these fees shouldn't have come as a shock to the Morocco's owners. It was a lot of money, but it was what Essadki had promised to pay according to his lease agreement, said Pat Kelley, GPR Ventures' attorney. Much of the cost came from the significantly higher tax bill after the property sold, he said.
"This isn't some invented number -- this is what was owed and what we had to pay on their behalf," Kelley said. "The best way to describe it is their restaurant was overcome by events inside the lease itself."
The property developers say they worked out a payment plan with Morocco's owners, but the deal went nowhere. By mid-March, the Essadki brothers were supposed to pay half the money, but they ended up throwing in the towel. Essadki says he couldn't get together the money and he refused to borrow it. Sensing a closure was near, nearly all of the employees at Morocco's quit around this time.
Around the start of April, GPR Ventures sent a formal three-day eviction notice. About a week later, everyone met at the firm's San Jose office to consider ways to resolve the problem. GPR officials say they offered to reduce rent to $6,000 a month to keep Morocco's at the location. Meanwhile the Essadki brothers offered to take a buyout in the lease.
Yonekura said the brothers initially asked for $1.4 million, which he described as outrageous. He pegged its value at closer to $100,000, but he pointed out the Essadkis would still have to pay back their debt. Everyone left the meeting agreeing to consider some proposals.
Within a matter of days, Morocco's and the Phoenix juice bar both abruptly shut down. Essadki said he was stressed out and lacked any staff to work in the restaurants. Plus, he says he worried about his health if he persisted in trying to make it work.
But losing Morocco's is hardly a win for the landlord. GPR Managing Principal Phil Rolla describes the unoccupied restaurant space as an ongoing loss for his firm. Trying to get a new tenant in there is unlikely since the area is slated to be redeveloped soon, he said.
The outcome is unfortunate, he said, but he doesn't see how his company is responsible.
"I don't see how we could have done this differently," Rolla said. "We didn't want to see Morocco's fail. There was no benefit in that for us."