Your Hours May Be Set By Your Landlord:
The Continuous Operation Clause in Restaurant Leases
Most landlords will insist on including a continuous operation clause in a restaurant lease. These clauses require a tenant to be open for business continuously during the term of the lease on specific days and at hours dictated by the landlord. It is in the landlord’s best interest to make sure it’s tenants are fully operating because this attracts customers. More customers increase a tenant’s sales, which in the case of a lease with percentage rent, means more rent owed to the landlord. While these clauses vary considerably from one lease to another, it is important to read and understand them before you enter into a long-term agreement as continuous operation clauses have several hidden problems that could affect the unsophisticated restaurant tenant.
When negotiating a restaurant lease it is crucial to address the days and hours of operation up front. If a landlord isn’t flexible on these items, it’s better for a tenant to know right away so the tenant doesn’t waste their time and money on a site that won’t work for their business model. A clause that requires a tenant to open earlier, or remain open later, then times customers are predicted to patron the restaurant will quickly erode its profitability. For example, a brewpub restaurant concept probably shouldn’t be expected to serve breakfast, but it probably would want to remain open late to maximize alcohol sales. Likewise, a coffee shop serving breakfast and lunch probably won’t want to be required to remain open until 10:00 p.m. Also important for tenants operating in shopping centers that desire to remain open past normal center hours, the lease should address the party responsible to cover increased operating costs, such as additional lighting, security, parking and access.
Another important issue to address in continuous operation clause is the ability of the tenant to close an unprofitable restaurant and/or terminate the lease. Under a typical continuous operation clause, a tenant would be in default under the lease if it ceased operating, opening itself up to damages and penalties. A tenant in this situation would be forced to decide between closing the restaurant to reduce its costs and expenses or default on the lease. However, a tenant can protect themselves from this situation by insisting on including a “go dark” clause.
A “go dark” clause permits a tenant to stop operating at a site without being in default under the lease. This clause is typically dependent on tenant complying with all of its other lease obligations, including paying rent. A “go dark” option may be available immediately or after a period of time operating (e.g., 1, 2 or 3 years). A tenant will still be obligated to pay rent under the lease, but its expenses will be reduced because it is no longer operating. Landlords may require a tenant to provide a reasonable amount of notice of its intent to go dark so that it can find a suitable replacement for the tenant. Since such a notice requirement will extend a tenant’s ability to stop the bleeding, the tenant should insist on minimal amount of notice as possible.
In the event a tenant goes dark during the term of the lease, a landlord is left with an empty space that isn’t generating sales or attracting foot traffic. In order to protect its interests, the landlord may insist on a recapture right. This recapture right permits a landlord to regain control of the space after a tenant goes dark for a period of time and re-lease the space to another tenant of its choice. When the landlord elects to recapture the space the lease terminates. Tenants should include carve out language in the recapture clause for periods of time tenant closes due to a casualty, repairs, maintenance, alterations or periodic reimaging. A landlord may attempt to include language in the recapture clause that requires the tenant to reimburse landlord for certain costs, such as improvements and brokerage fees. A tenant may argue that since the landlord has the ultimate decision to terminate the lease, but for landlord recapturing the space, it would have paid rent for the entire term.
Continuous operation clauses have many moving parts and are complicated. While this article touches upon some of the issues that commonly arise in a lease negotiation, how these and other issues are resolved will depend upon many factors, including the relative bargaining strength of the parties involved.