Atherton Subs, which has operated at the 995 Marsh Road shopping center since 2004, closed last Monday, Dec. 21. Owner Henry Nguyen posted a sign in the window that reads: "Due to the loss of lease contract after 10 years of seeing you, we are now closed for good."
Yet the same day, on Dec. 21, the owners of Marsh Manor sent out a message to their email subscribers that said Atherton Subs would be closing at the end of the month following a 30-day retirement notice Nguyen gave on Dec. 1. He had also "mentioned his future plans" a few months ago to owners Dorine and Jerry Secrest, the email reads.
"We are actively seeking a new and suitable business to take over the space, but have nothing to announce at this time," the email reads. "Henry is a very friendly person and has always been a joy to have as a tenant at Marsh Manor. We wish him the best in his retirement."
The email also shares Nguyen’s contact information for anyone who might be interested in purchasing the shop’s equipment.
Nguyen did, in fact, let the Secrests know in July that he planned to sell the business to retire early. But he said that he only made that decision in light of seeing how the owners treated other mom-and-pop businesses in the revitalized shopping center -- giving them month-to-month rather than long-term leases to preserve the opportunity to bring in new tenants, he thought.
Marsh Manor’s property manager, Chris Hopkins of Westmont Real Estate Services, wrote in an email that the owners "naturally kept a few tenants on a month-to-month basis to keep our options open for what is best for the future of Marsh Manor. If we did not have that opportunity Marsh Manor would not be as successful as it is today. A successful shopping center has to adapt with changing neighborhood needs for goods and services."
Nguyen "only sees the end result of tenant turnover, was not privy to any of the reasons for turnover, and subsequently draws inaccurate conclusions," Hopkins said.
For his part, Nguyen spent the next several months searching for a new business to take over the space and recoup the $273,000 he spent to open the store a decade ago, but was unable to do so, he said. Where he saw the Secrests as unwilling to help him do so, forcing him to close, they saw a failing business that they had tried to support, but that didn’t fit with their long-term vision for the revamped shopping center.
The now-closed Atherton Subs at Marsh Manor in Redwood City.
Nguyen first joined the Marsh Manor fleet of businesses as a Quizno’s franchisee when the original owner, Dorine Secrests’ father, Richard Delucchi, was still at the helm. (Delucchi, a Woodside resident, died in February.)
When the Quiznos started to go downhill, Nguyen requested to stay on as an independent sandwich shop, according to Hopkins. The Secrests agreed and even came up with the name “Atherton Subs,” Hopkins said. They renegotiated a new, two-year lease. Once that ended, Nguyen went month to month. The owners have kept his rent at $4,000 per month since the renegotiated lease 10 years ago, Hopkins said, despite rising maintenance costs.
"We bent over backwards helping him for 10 years," Hopkins said in an interview.
This summer, on Aug. 4, Nguyen emailed Hopkins and Jerry Secrest to let them know he planned to retire early and sell Atherton Subs.
"It was a great time doing business with you as my landlord, especially when you let me try to do the Atherton Subs as an independent business. I appreciated your kind heart so much and the chance you gave me to continue doing business after Quiznos.
"Now I need your help to give the new prospected business owner a good lease so that he/she can do business with you long term," he continued. "With your help, I can have some capital to help me plan for my retirement."
The Secrests said they considered several food businesses Nguyen brought to them over the next few months, including House of Bagels, Main Street Bagels and Mountain Mike’s Pizza. This was despite a desire to bring in a different kind of a tenant -- preferably a non-food national tenant, like a bank, though they were open to the right food establishment if it came along, the Secrests said. They said they were open with Nguyen about this preference.
"We're trying to upgrade the center, so we wanted a national tenant, not a mom and pop," Hopkins said. "We interviewed these tenants and they were essentially mom-and-pop tenants."
The Secrests said when they visited local outposts of both House of Bagels and Main Street Bagels, they weren’t well-patronized, so they weren’t convinced they would be successful tenants. The center also has breakfast food well-covered, with both Starbucks and Squeeze Inn, a breakfast restaurant that opened in March.
Moreover, Atherton Subs occupied what Hopkins described as Marsh Manor’s "premiere" space, on a "key corner" of the shopping center with more visibility along Marsh Road.
"We'll get higher rent there than anywhere else in the center and he wants us to go ahead and lease it to a mom and pop, and that's not what we want to do," Hopkins said. "So we're being picky and I believe reasonably so."
Unable to find a new tenant, on Dec. 1, Nguyen sent his official 30-day closure notice via email to Hopkins and Jerry. He made another plea for help in finding a new tenant so as to recover the investment he made to build and open the store, but said he planned to close by the end of the month.
Hopkins and the Secrests said they were shocked to hear soon after that Nguyen was telling others that they had given him a two-week notice and he was losing his lease.
Nguyen told me the same last week when reached by phone: "Retiring is not true," he said. "I lost the lease. That’s just the surface."
He described the owners as "greedy" and "cruel" and that they "cold-bloodedly rejected" at least three pleas for help finding a new tenant.
"Now I walked out of my business, empty handed!" he wrote in an email last week.
Nguyen thought they refused him another long-term lease so that they could easily bring in a new business if they found one -- perhaps a Verizon Wireless store or "high-end restaurant" he said -- but Hopkins said it was because business at Atherton Subs was "deteriorating." The Secrests and Hopkins said Nguyen could have stayed longer and chose his own closure date.
"We're not pushing him out because we have somebody ready to go," Hopkins said. "In fact, we're going to lose money now until we find somebody."
Jerry said that "the space will be vacant until we find a suitable tenant."
Marsh Manor was originally developed 50 years ago by Richard Delucchi. The shopping center has undergone significant change over the years that Atherton Subs was there, with a remodel done about five years ago and the addition of new businesses like Freewheel Brewing Company, Angel Heart Cakes (which was sold last month to a new owner), Squeeze Inn, Vibe Yoga and others. Key Market also closed in September 2014 after 20 years of business, making way for Delucchi’s Market, which opened in October 2014. Other current tenants also include a beauty salon, dry cleaner’s, dentist, AllState insurance store and a personal-training business. What used to be a liquor store will house a new pet store in 2016.
"We have to do what's good for all the other tenants, what makes sense, what's going to bring in more business for them," Dorine said about their attempt to find a new tenant for the Atherton Subs space
"For us, too," Jerry added.