Even though it may be filled to the brim with patrons, the popular downtown pub Bierhaus is being threatened with closure in the next couple of months. The owners of the 383 Castro St. location have put the beer garden on notice that the lease will not be renewed, warning that it will need to clear out by the end of September.
The fight brewing between Bierhaus owner Mike Finley and his landlord has gone from sour to toxic in the past several months. The landlord and restaurant owner now communicate through attorneys, and the conflict seems destined for a lawsuit.
Finley says he wants to sign a short-term lease and is willing to pay market rate rent to stay put, but his landlord will no longer do business with him. Finley is now alleging that his landlord is planning to essentially steal his successful business concept by kicking him out and opening a duplicate beer garden at the same site.
"Bierhaus is like my first born child. I put all my money and an incredible amount of work and intellectual property into it," Finley said. "To yank this away from me, that's simply an injustice."
Finley's landlord, the Tran family of San Jose, said they are simply trying to manage their property and they are fully within their rights not to renew the Bierhaus lease.
Their relationship took a dive earlier this year when the Tran family submitted plans to the city of Mountain View to redevelop the 383 Castro St. site into a four-story office building. In response, Finley went public with his concerns about the office project, saying it would ruin the appeal of Bierhaus as well as the city's downtown core.
The conflict has taken on a political dimension amid the larger question over Mountain View's bustling downtown. Livable Mountain View, a group skeptical of downtown redevelopment, came to champion Bierhaus as a business that deserves protection.
Earlier this week, the Tran family felt the need to explain their side of the story. Khoe Tran and Nghiem Truong and their two adult children attended a packed Old Mountain View Neighborhood Association meeting on Monday and detailed their plans to rebuild the site. The meeting was reportedly organized by former Councilman Mike Kasperzak, who is consulting for the family on the project.
They emphasized their humble origins as an immigrant family who scrimped and saved to buy the former Wienerschnitzel building in 2007. Speaking to the Voice, daughter Dana Tran said her parents put their life savings and home equity into the purchase. She insisted that her family wasn't trying to turn a quick buck on the property.
"If we only wanted to make money on this property, we would have sold it to developers years ago," Tran said. "We're trying to do what we can to keep this in our family. This is our American dream."
Following the purchase, the Tran family signed a 10-year lease with Mehmet Degerli, who initially opened a Turkish cafe at the location. That eatery didn't pan out, and Degerli later entered into a partnership with Finley. Degerli and co-owner Scott Snyder are currently silent partners in Bierhaus, Finley said.
Tran said her mother, Nghiem Truong, was in charge of managing the lease, but she quickly encountered problems. Degerli often could not make his monthly rent payments as his restaurant struggled in the post-recession economy. Her mother would try to be compassionate and she sometimes let the rent payments slide, but her charity eventually bottomed out, Tran said.
"She kept saying that when the market is better, they would pay on time. But it just continued going on," Tran said. "She was trying to help them out, but now we think that she was taken advantage of."
Finley inherited some of that resentment after taking over the lease and opening his successful beer garden concept. Tran said her parents became frustrated with Finley because he never would pay his rent on the first of the month, even after they had issued warnings.
Finley said he has never missed a payment. The language in his lease gives him latitude on when he makes his monthly payments, he said. He believes the Tran family's complaints over rent are a pretext for kicking him out.
Finley has his own set of grievances against the Tran family. He blames them for failing to maintain the property, particularly in 2016 when a sewer line under the building ruptured. The incident forced Bierhaus to close for days, but the Tran family refused to fix it, he said. He eventually had to pay $30,000 for repairs. He could have sued, but the costs of taking it to court would have made any damage award a Pyrrhic victory.
"Practically speaking, the (sewer) lateral lasts at least 30 years and my lease was over in two years," he said. "They receive the economic benefit of my investment. That is not fair."
Finley alleges that the Tran family has repeatedly ignored the language in their own lease. They were initially pressuring Bierhaus to close down in June, but attorneys working for Finley alerted them that his lease remained valid until the end of September. Finley's attorneys have also pointed out that the Trans agreed in their lease that they would negotiate a new lease in good faith. By a wide margin, Bierhaus should be the obvious choice to remain at that site until it is redeveloped, they said.
Based on the community input, Dana Tran said it was abundantly clear that residents appreciated the concept of Bierhaus as a casual gathering place. The family is currently working on a new restaurant concept that would maintain that appeal, she said. They were in talks to open a new beer garden with a group of partners whom she declined to identify.
In effect, would that be stealing Finley's idea for Bierhaus? Tran said that wasn't the case.
"I don’t think he came up with the beer garden concept. That’s been around everywhere," she said. "I don't believe that’s his concept."
Finley doesn't agree, and he says there is considerable "intellectual property" invested in his pub concept. Working with his dad and sister, he is launching a second Bierhaus in Oakland in the near future. But he wants to keep his business open in Mountain View.
He is currently considering a lawsuit based on violations of his lease that could be ready to file by the end of this week, he said.
"I'm willing to pay market rate, and this is a 40-year-old building that no money has been put into," he said. "This doesn't make any sense."