A bartender put it bluntly— “We’ve gotten signatures, but it doesn’t matter; they don’t care,” she said—as a trio of glum patrons turned away from the zinc-topped bar and altogether exited the embattled Hell’s Kitchen eatery Le Madeleine on Sunday night.
The cozy, candle-lit French bistro’s usually appetizing smells of grilled quail and duck confit seemed barely noticeable that evening, compared to the palpable sense of defeat in the air.
Service was so slow that one irate patron, annoyed by long-lingering dessert plates, collected his own clanging dishes and dumped them onto the nearest vacant table.
It’s hard to blame staffers of an imperiled restaurant facing possible unemployment for acting apathetic. But these people need all the tips they can get.
Strapped with mounting legal fees, the moderately priced restaurant is now “aggressively raising money,” according to its Web site, in order to move the whole operation approximately 800 feet east from its original location at 403 West 43rd Street to a vastly less charming retail site along the same street: the former Timeless Treasures Christian bookstore space at 315 West 43rd Street.
From collecting more than 12,000 supporters’ signatures to drumming up cash donations, charismatic Texas-born restaurateur Toney Edwards has put everything he’s got into halting Le Madeleine’s eviction—a battle he has described in terms of good vs. evil; a stalwart of charming Old Manhattan standing up to the profit-minded forces of unmitigated modern development.
But after more than two years of costly court wrangling, will he even have enough resources left to relocate? “We’re 75 percent of the way there,” Mr. Edwards said of the fund-raising effort. “We’re close enough that we could take a leap of faith—though I’m not anxious to take a leap of faith.”
Last fall, Mr. Edwards traveled to India in search of “spiritual enlightenment” to help him confront Le Madeleine’s worsening real estate crisis.
A Manhattan judge had just rejected the eatery owner’s argument against what Mr. Edwards called the “improper and incomplete” eviction of his cherished neighborhood restaurant by landlord Mark Scharfman.
(Mr. Scharfman has long maintained his right to terminate Mr. Edwards’ tenancy and tear the single-story brick building down, citing a specific demolition clause in the restaurant’s lease. Mr. Edwards has countered that the lease also granted him use of the vast basement area beneath the protected old tenement building next door, which, his lawyer argued, makes the planned demolition an all-or-nothing proposition: “You can’t demolish only a piece of it.” The judge disagreed.)
Mr. Edwards returned from his trip with legal guns blazing, fiercely determined to win on appeal. He also came back to the brutal realization that his wallet might not withstand a terribly prolonged conflict.
“As enthusiastic as I am in engaging this battle with this terrible villain, at some point, the good is going to be diminished,” Mr. Edwards told The Observer. “I’ve got to look at the reality that, sooner or later, I have to replace the stoves in the kitchen. The same money that I’m paying the lawyers is supposed to pay for the stoves. If I spend it on the lawyers, I can’t spend it on the stoves.”
Legal bills have been piling up ever since his return, as Mr. Edwards took his case all the way to the state’s highest court. And lost.
So much for new stoves.
Yet, undaunted by three consecutive, costly court defeats, Mr. Edwards announced last month two additional lawsuits: one designed to further forestall eviction proceedings; and another seeking compensatory damages for nearly a dozen future years of lost revenues, if and when his forced exit finally happens. “You’ve got to fight—or get out,” he said.
Lest you mistake him for some litigious jerk, the tall bald man with the toothy grin would point out that, given his track record so far with the legal system, he’d probably fare far better by merely competing amid Manhattan’s cutthroat food-service scene.
“I’m doing $3 million a year,” Mr. Edwards has told The Observer. “That’s 11 years times $3 million—do you think I’ll have a chance in hell of getting that amount of money? Besides, that won’t help the 51 employees that I’ve got. By the time that I get whatever I get, they’re going to be dispersed and I’ll be broke, so I won’t be able to give them a piece of the action. It’d be better if I stayed in business.”
As part of his multi-pronged effort to keep the eatery afloat, Mr. Edwards previously launched an ambitious PR offensive intended to steer public opinion to his side.
Despite the support of thousands of petition signers, the publicity also had a downside.
“Because of the buzz over our lease controversy, some people have the mistaken impression that we have closed,” wrote Mr. Edwards in an editorial published this past April in the monthly neighborhood newspaper Clinton Chronicle. “This is, in itself, a threat to our survival. In reality, not only are we open, but we are working harder than ever to earn the repeat business we need to make the money to pay our legal bills and other expenses related to the fight.”
To rebuild his long-standing business in empty white space less than one block down the street would, in a way, bring the 28-year story of Le Madeleine back to the beginning. “When I started, this was a dirt floor,” he has said of the eatery’s humble roots. “I poured the cement slab.” Over the years, Mr. Edwards expanded into neighboring storefronts and installed a glass ceiling over the venue’s garden patio to provide for year-round dining under the stars.
Then again, starting over from scratch in modern Manhattan presents far different economic challenges. “The cost of building a new restaurant nowadays is far more expensive than it was in 1979,” he noted. Not to mention the rent. The alternative space is twice as big, with room for nearly 300 diners. It will cost, he said, far more than his current $10,000 monthly rent.