NEW ORLEANS -- The owners of Montrel’s Bistro set out to become a French Quarter icon, but instead the restaurant has become a perpetual headache for its landlord, the city of New Orleans.
Now the clock is ticking on the family-owned Creole restaurant occupying prime real estate near the French Market.
At a recent French Market Corporation meeting, the board voted 4-2 to cancel Montrel’s lease. The main reason was the eatery’s delinquent payment last month of more than $20,000 in rent to the city.
The deputy director of the French Market, Patricia Henry, gave the city agency’s official recommendation before the vote was taken.
“If we are going by what the lease says,” Henry pronounced, “then the lease should be terminated based on them not complying with the terms of their lease.”
Owner Elvira Collins explained at the meeting that the restaurant informed the city agency it would be late by a few days.
But Collins, and her two brothers who serve as advisors and managers, had a more difficult time explaining more than a dozen earlier delinquencies since the restaurant opened at its North Peters address in 2008. Eyewitness Investigates obtained the documents showing Montrel’s history of late payments, including missed rent, delinquent late fees, bounced checks and failure to submit required sales figures.
Alvin Broussard said the restaurant’s financial difficulties are behind it.
“We have some growing pains, but as we grow and mature get more mature, we get beyond those growing pains,” Broussard said.
But late rent isn’t the only problem that led to Montrel’s eviction.
Demetric Mercadel, who chairs the French Market board, cited the restaurant’s high number of state health code violations as another reason for her vote to cancel the lease. The board cited more than 70 violations, declaring the number as the most of any New Orleans restaurant over the past five years.
“If you’re going to have seventy-plus violations in five years, that’s not good for us,” Mercadel said at the meeting. “At the end of the day, it’s the French Market.”
Broussard and his brother, consultant A.S. Broussard, questioned the findings, which are chronicled by inspectors for the state Department of Health and Hospitals and posted on the agency’s website. The brothers said many of the violations were minor and quickly corrected. They said other violations were the same old problems repeated in multiple reports.
But the bottom line, Alvin Broussard said, is that the restaurant is now clean and violation-free. He insisted that the health inspectors “mischaracterized” the restaurant’s level of cleanliness.
“You can come down anytime you feel like it, unannounced,” Broussard said. “Come for breakfast, lunch, dinner, anytime you want. Come on down. Walk through.”
But Montrel’s is at the center of another sticky issue with the city. Because of faulty wiring at French Market headquarters – which shares the building with Montrel’s – the city had been paying nearly all of the restaurant’s electric bills. The problem went unnoticed and uncorrected for about five years until it was fixed in December.
Eyewitness Investigates obtained a report by the French Market’s building maintenance supervisor, Robert Gurtner, which detailed massively defective wiring throughout the building.
According to the report, not only was the city paying most of Montrel’s light bills, Montrel’s was paying some portion of the bills for another city tenant, WWOZ radio. And WWOZ was paying for some of the electricity to the French Market offices.
New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux said he would immediately launch an investigation into the findings.
“I’ll make sure our auditors look into it,” Quatrevaux said. “We’ll find out the details if we don’t know them all, and take action as appropriate."
But the electricity snafu raised the question of how the proprietors of a restaurant failed to notice they weren’t paying a full electricity bill. Mercadel said it appears Montrel’s never called the utility company to switch service into the name of the restaurant.
Mercadel said the French Market is getting a full accounting of who owes what, but preliminary estimates show that Montrel’s could be forced to pay more than $100,000 back to the taxpayers.
We asked A.S. Broussard about the oversight.
“Now I don’t want to answer that now, but I’m saying this, I know we pay common rent. I don’t know what’s covered. I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “Whatever Entergy sent to me, I paid it.”
Paying back the city for the mistake could prove to be a tall order for a family restaurant with less than 90 days to go on its now-cancelled lease. But A.S. Broussard said his family will fight to stay open.
“I would be saying, well, in five years, we’ve come from zero to here, making over $1 million a year in revenue for the city. Whatever we had to clean up, we cleaned up. And now we’re already in compliance. Hey man, come on, this is a winner. It all depends on how you see it. Is it half-empty or half-full?”
If history is any guide, Montrel’s eviction is not a foregone conclusion.
According to French Market records, the board voted unanimously in February 2011 to evict the restaurant. By March, the eviction had been rescinded.