By JOHN T. WARD
Zebu Forno, one of Red Bank’s most prominent see-and-be-seen eateries, locked its doors and papered over its windows this week after a long-running rent dispute.
But the coffee urns and pizza ovens won’t stay cold permanently. Owner Andrew Gennusa tells redbankgreen he’s signed to take over storefront space just three doors away, in the former Broad National Bank building at 12 Broad Street.
Pending approval of a variance for a conversion to a food use, Gennusa said the new shop could be ready in six to eight weeks.
“We’re coming back,” said a smiling Gennusa, as he and operations manager Ryan Timmons were busy breaking down equipment in the darkened space at 20 Broad. “It’s an opportunity to rebirth the business.”
Like a pub without the pints, Zebu is arguably among the borough’s landmark meeting spots, a laptop-friendly Algonquin Hotel of sorts where deals, dates and deadlines are made and broken.
One deal that soured, however, was the lease. Gennusa, whose store has been in the space for a decade, signed a renewal at the peak of downtown rents, just weeks before the national economy went into a tailspin in the aftermath of the credit crisis in 2008.
Afterward, landlords Anthony Marino and Rich Stavola amended the terms of the lease, but not enough to bring it in line with true market values on Broad or general economic conditions, Gennusa has previously maintained.
What was a private landlord-tenant dispute went public this summer, when the owners put a “for lease” sign above the two Broad Street entrances to Zebu.
The standoff came to a head last Thursday, a day before Gennusa was scheduled to answer an eviction filing in state court in Freehold. The parties reached to a settlement that ended the tenancy and put all claims to rest, Gennusa said.
“Divorced,” Gennusa said of the arrangement. “One-hundred percent. Everything’s been settled in a peaceful and amicable way, we shook hands, wished each other well, and I have nothing bad to say about Anthony or Rich.”
Neither Stavola nor Marino could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Gennusa says the new space is identical in floor area to the existing restaurant, at 2,900 square feet, but 35 percent wider than the main portion of his store.
More crucially, he said, the rent is less than half what he was paying, and the building’s landlords, Nima Nili and Jason Nazmiyal, bent over backwards to keep him from leaving town. Geoff Brothers of Brothers Commercial Brokerage in Red Bank made the match.
“We were looking to bring a tenant into the space who was a strong part of the community,” Nili told redbankgreen. “Zebu is an established business. I think everyone in town has at one point stopped there for a cup of coffee or a pastry or whatever. It’s a good fit, and we’re excited.”
While Gennusa said that while he was concerned the interval during which Zebu is offline could mean a loss of loyal customers, the new store will offer a fresh start, with a tweaked menu, “food-runner” delivery to tables and improved customer service, which had slacked off during a yearlong interval in which Timmons was away and Gennusa was distracted by the rent issue.
“There will be a huge, huge focus on service,” said Timmons. “We’re going to hammer that out.”