Restaurant Leasing: Part 2 of 5

What Do You Mean I Can’t Change My Restaurant?

You have a great idea for a restaurant concept in an emerging area of the city, let’s say fast-casual barbecue, focusing on pork using your grandfather’s secret rub to give the meat an out of this world flavor. Six months after opening, sales are less than stellar. You’ve received rave reviews from local food critics, but unbeknownst to you when you signed the lease, the immediately surrounding neighborhood is comprised middle eastern families who abhor pork. Realizing the concept is probably best used elsewhere, you inform the landlord that you’re reinventing yourself as a Mediterranean grill, refocusing your barbecue skills on grilling kebabs and meats (other than pork of course). The landlord is sympathetic to your unfortunate situation, but informs you the lease only permits a barbecue restaurant and any other use violates the lease. What is a food entrepreneur to do?

This scenario is quite common; however, the risk can be minimized by proper planning. Restaurants by nature require periodic re-imaging. Whether it’s a complete change of concept or some minor updates and sprucing up, tenants should make sure the lease provides flexibility and an exit plan. This is important in order for restaurants to remain profitable and adaptable to continually shifting market trends. If the restaurant is part of a franchise it will be subject to a variety of image and use requirements imposed by the franchisor and franchise agreement, so these factors must be taken into consideration during lease negotiations.

To protect its flexibility, tenants should attempt to negotiate a broad use clause to permit a “restaurant or any lawful use.” Similar concepts should be addressed in the alterations and signage provisions of the lease in order to permit tenant to reimage or rebrand as necessary. Since the lease term for restaurants are generally longer than most other retail businesses, such broad use clauses will protect a tenant from future changes in the market.

Landlords may not be willing to provide such flexibility out of fear that a restaurant may become a nightclub, bar or coffee shop. Some landlords may not be flexible at all and may insist upon attaching a menu as an exhibit to the lease to establish the parameters of a potential tenant’s use. However, having an agreed menu can limit innovation, even when a tenant is not looking to drastically change its use of the premises. It is important to point out that many landlords are concerned with maintaining a mix of tenants at the property in order not to duplicate certain cuisines or themes. To further protect this tenant mix, landlords may include language in the lease that requires approval or recapture rights for a change of use.

While initially in the lease negotiations parties may appear to be at an impasse when it comes to defining permitted use, there is still room to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. If the landlord rejects including a general restaurant use provision, the tenant may suggest an expanded use clause. This would permit the tenant to modify its use of the premises after operating for a period of time under the initial permitted use, so long as not in conflict with any prohibited or exclusive uses granted by the landlord. Another option is to limit the percentage of sales or square footage of the premises which are devoted to the new use. If the landlord is unwilling to consider any of the suggestions above to provide tenant with sufficient flexibility in the use clause, tenant may try to include a right to terminate the lease if the restaurant does not generate a certain amount of sales.

When negotiating a restaurant lease for a franchise particular attention should be paid to the requirements under the franchise agreement. Too often tenants overlook the terms and conditions of the franchise agreement in regards to reimaging and rebranding, which may conflict with the permitted use provision in the lease. In such event, the tenant may be in a position of having to choose between defaulting under the lease or franchise agreement, neither of which results in a desirable outcome. In order to prevent this from happening, the parties may want to include a provision that permits the tenant to change the use and/or name of the business under which tenant is operating if the change is made across the franchisor’s franchise system. Usually, if the qualification is that such changes are done in the majority of the franchisor’s locations, the landlord will permit this.