Immigrant Doughnut Shop Owner May Be Left in Hole

This is a story of an immigrant and a doughnut shop. Out of such seemingly simple combinations can we learn something about this land of opportunity we call America.

The operative phrase for today will be, Land of Opportunity .

After Communists overthrew the Cambodian government, Muy Leang fled his native land in 1975 and brought his young family to America. Leang was trained in computers and worked until 18 months ago for a savings and loan that went under. In 1983, hoping to augment his financial future, Leang and his wife, Eng Lim, bought a doughnut shop in the Alicia Towne Plaza in what is now Mission Viejo. When he bought the shop, with financial help from relatives, Leang signed a 10-year lease.

Since 1983, Leang has stayed put while watching his commercial neighbors come and go. Although he's not getting rich, Leang has paid his rent on time, partly because he and his wife do most of the work.

That's the background. Now for the business at hand.

Leang's lease expires in February. Although he expected a rent increase, he was excited about the future because Mervyn's has built a new anchor store for the strip mall, replacing an Albertson's supermarket. Like the other tenants, Leang has put up with the construction hassles for the last year while contemplating the increased business that a Mervyn's likely would generate.

However, when the property management company contacted Leang about his new lease, it had bad news. Mervyn's, it seems, has a stipulation that no commercial food outlet shall be located within 200 feet of its store. Officials of the property management company, Watt Management in Santa Monica, say that's not unusual for large anchor-store clients and stems partly from their fear that people will bring food into the store.

So one day the tape measure was brought out and, drat the luck, Leang's doughnut shop was 154 feet away from Mervyn's.

Even so, Leang says the management company initially talked about upgrades for his doughnut shop--as if to suggest he might stay--but eventually told him it wouldn't be worth the cost to him.

"I said, 'You mean if I do the upgrades, then people are not going to bring their food into Mervyn's?' " Leang said Tuesday as we talked in the back of his shop. The question he had posed to the management company was, of course, rhetorical. To put it bluntly, Leang started getting the message that his doughnut shop may no longer be wanted in the mall.

Earlier this month, Leang got a letter from the management company that said, "we regret to inform you" that the landlord wasn't offering a new lease for the space. It left the door open to a relocation within the strip that, a few doors down from Leang, includes a pizza shop and sandwich shop.

Leang is still receptive to relocating in the mall, but the prospect of moving somewhere outside the mall is unappealing. "I don't want to take two, three or maybe even five years to start a new business," he said. "To have new customers, it's hard to start a new business, especially with the economy."

Gale Zander, the director of operations for Watt Management, says no decision has been made about Leang's doughnut shop. "We, as the company representing the owner, are going to do what is best for that center," she said.

"If he (Leang) and the owner can't come to a decision on new lease terms and he does not want to go where we feel we can put him (in the mall), he has a decision (about moving to) another location. We're not going to say to him, 'You need to be out of here in 30 or 60 days.' We'll work with tenants so we can find someplace that's going to work for him and give him time to do that."

To be fair to the management company, it must be said that Leang hasn't gotten anything approaching an eviction notice. But, to me, the bottom line is that neither will anyone guarantee Leang a spot in the mall for his doughnut shop.

"I've got a leasing department that's trying to come up with a game plan," Zander said. "It depends on who's out there who wants to come in, what kind of mix we want. It's just a business decision, and sometimes tenants are moved out in that business decision. But we're not choosing this one little tenant and picking on him in any way."

I'll concede Watt's legal right to force Leang out if Zander will just concede that their business decisions might well mean the end of the Leang family's business life. The ludicrousness of the Watt position--assuming for a moment that they're leveling with me about not already having made a decision to force Leang out--is that it means they'd be willing to make him uproot his business to move it a distance of fewer than 100 feet or so.

I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that Leang's days are numbered in the plaza.

Leang isn't so sure, but he actually laughs when he considers that he might have to move his doughnut shop one door down so as to stay outside the 200-foot barrier.

The only sense he can make of it, Leang says, is that "a doughnut shop is not fit to stay with Mervyn's."

Then he laughed a wry laugh, as if to say, What is Mervyn's, Saks Fifth Avenue ?

To be sure, Mervyn's is not the first biggie to invoke the 200-foot rule. Watt Management is not the first company to squeeze a small fry. Leang is not the first merchant to be uninvited to the dance.

Land of opportunity.

Munch on that phrase this morning over a doughnut and coffee.

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