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Sour Taste : Popular Diner Being Forced to Close After 28 Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s kind of glum these days down at the Gem Cafe, behind the gingham curtains and the Formica countertop.

Oh, the ham is still fresh-baked, and just the other day a pair of regulars declared that the homemade coconut cream pie was “better than sex.” But for the last month, it has seemed, about every other word at Henry and Grace Poirier’s Hermosa Beach diner has been about its imminent demise.

After 28 years on Pier Avenue, the Poiriers and their cafe are being evicted Sunday. The landlords, film producer Warren Miller and his wife, Laurie, describe it as a business decision.

But the Poiriers, who are in their 60s, say the move will deprive them of a retirement nest egg they were counting on.

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And their customers--who say it will deprive them of a darn good cup of coffee--have rallied to the cause.

“We’ve formed a Save the Gem Cafe Committee,” said local businessman Richard McCurdy, who has gathered the names of more than 60 people who want to help keep the Poiriers in business.

“It’s a gathering place. You feel like you’re sitting down with mom and dad,” said McCurdy, who drops by the Gem at least three times a week for a slice of lemon cake. “Unfortunately, Henry’s not the best businessman in the world, and he’s been renting there month to month for years. He doesn’t have a lease.”

Since 1964, when Miller bought the building, Poirier said, he has paid the $475-a-month rent in cash on “a gentleman’s agreement.” But for the last year, he added, he and his wife have tried in vain to get the Millers to write them a lease.

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Laurie Miller, meanwhile, says they were offered a lease several years ago and turned it down.

Both sides say communication has been bad: The Poiriers don’t want to deal with Warren Miller’s property manager and Miller--a successful film maker with a string of cult movies about downhill skiing to his credit--has moved to Hawaii.

Without a lease, the Poiriers say, they can’t sell their restaurant. And if they can’t sell, they can’t retire.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do. This has been my life for almost 28 years,” said Henry Poirier, 65, wiping a damp rag across the gray counter.

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Warren Miller--who at 66 is himself preparing to retire--was unavailable for comment. But his wife said the Poiriers had ample time to prepare for their retirement and obtain a lease.

Laurie Miller noted that the Gem’s rent has for years been far below market value, and said her husband had spoken frequently of the Poiriers’ recalcitrance about signing a lease. In April, she and her husband were approached by a prospective tenant, and, believing that the Poiriers were ready to retire, leased the space.

“Had there been a different personality to our relationship over the years, it might have been different,” Laurie Miller said.

Henry Poirier denied there had been any ill will between the Millers and himself. “I can’t understand this. If he wanted more money, why didn’t he come over and tell me?”

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Poirier’s customers echoed his anger and bafflement.

“They’ve handled this in such a cold, callous, entrepreneurial manner. These are elderly people. It’s like hearing that somebody has decided to send mom and dad off to the home,” said actor Max Wright, who played the father on the NBC sitcom “ALF.”

Wright, who is helping publicize the Gem’s plight, said that his group offered to buy the restaurant for a little more than $200,000 but the Millers refused, citing potential tax losses. For the last several weeks, he added, his group has been searching for alternative restaurant sites.

But in any case, Wright and other customers said, it would be impossible to re-create the chatty ambience of the Gem. Poirier bought the business in 1962 for $6,000 from two sisters who had opened it in 1949.

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“I’ve been coming to this place since before Henry owned it, even, since right after the war,” said 84-year-old Jay D. Lusher, settling into his customary seat.

“That’ll be World War II,” clarified retiree Dick Shrode from down the counter.

Poirier had hoped to sell the business for about $60,000 and train his successors to cook and care for the Gem as he and his wife had. Now, he frets, that expertise will be lost.

“Places like this, they’re on the way out,” he said. “Places like this are hard to find.”

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