At its June 21 meeting, the Maplewood Township Committee, acting as the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, chose not to renew the plenary liquor license owned by 5 Highland Place Associates LLC.
The liquor license and property at 5 Highland Place are both owned by Masoud Kian, who obtained the license last year at a price of $120,000 with the expectation that he would shortly lease the property and bring in a new restaurant.
At the June 21 Township meeting, Mayor Vic DeLuca had tough words for Nelson Monteiro who was representing Kian before the governing body. “In the year, we haven’t seen much happening.” DeLuca said he had had a “spirited discussion” with Kian the day before.
“To be honest, people have been disappointed in your client’s lack of movement in getting that place back open. Why should we approve another year of giving him a license?” said DeLuca.
“All I can tell you is that my client is desperate to have this place running,” said Monteiro, who argued that his client “lost $120,000” when “he got caught up in the financial hardship” of the property’s previous tenant.
“My client had to buy the license back from the proprietor just so he wouldn’t lose the license. That building without the license is not worth it.” Monteiro said that Kian paid $120,000 to the former owner to buy back the liquor license, with $90,000 of that going to the state to pay back taxes that the former owner owed.
Monteiro explained that Kian’s objective was to sell the building, not rent it. “My client has made tremendous efforts to get this sold. If he sells the liquor license, he loses the liquor license; one has to go with the other. They either just want to rent and buy the license, but he can’t risk losing the license,” said Monteiro.
Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams was having none of it.
“My understanding is that another very popular restaurant that always has a long line reached out to your client and received no response about trying to rent it,” said Adams.
“I have had other people tell me that they tried to rent, but your client is not willing to do any fit-out to the building at all,” said Adams. “And yet he is expecting any new tenant to not only not own the liquor license, which is a gamble for a restaurant tenant, but also fit out someone else’s building to the tune of half a million dollars and try to build a business on top of that.”
“You’re saying he’s trying,” said Adams. “I don’t buy it.”
“There’s no give,” added Adams, who is a former commercial district manager familiar with commercial property rentals. “It’s unusual for any successful negotiation if the landlord is just going to say, ‘You have to do everything if you’re going to move in here.’ And it’s hurting our village.'”
Monteiro responded that four or five businesses had expressed interest in the last year: “It’s not that people haven’t been interested, they just haven’t come through. He’s had people actively seeking to purchase this building or the liquor license. Lawyers get involved, we exchange contracts, prospective leases, but they just never come to fruition. I can’t stress enough that he’d like nothing more than to have a viable business to make a go of it. He wants to make money.”
Mayor DeLuca responded that he had no confidence that the owner had the capacity to rent the building. He also said that $120,000 for a liquor license was “a steal.”
“We need to keep the town viable. He’s certainly not moving as quickly as we all expected him to do,” said DeLuca regarding Kian.
The Committee went into closed session to discuss the issue with counsel. When they returned, they voted 4-1 not to renew the license (the license expired June 30). Committeeman Greg Lembrich was the dissenting vote.
When asked to discuss the vote, both DeLuca and Lembrich demured, citing the legal reasons.
“The applicant’s attorney expressed his objection to our vote to deny the license and informed the Township Committee that his client would appeal the decision to the State of New Jersey,” wrote DeLuca in an email. “This is a legal matter and no further comments will be given. It is our practice not to comment publicly in legal matters.”
Lembrich did, however, respond to a question online about whether or not the license was now available to someone else to buy.
“The licensee continues to own the license,” wrote Lembrich. “It just can’t be used until it is renewed. Someone else could buy the license from the owner, of course, but that would be a private transaction between those parties and then subject to a person-to-person transfer application, which must be approved by the Township Committee (acting as the local ABC). The non-renewal does not, at least for the time being, have any impact on the licensee’s ownership of the license. This does not create an ‘available’ license to be sold by the town or state.”