Advertisement
Share

‘We don’t know what is going on’: The future of the Union Market in Tustin remains unclear

Co-owners Leonard Chan, center, and Dominic Iapello at Stowaway, located in the Union Market, on Aug. 11.
Co-owners Leonard Chan, center, and Dominic Iapello at Stowaway, located in the Union Market, on Aug. 11. A petition created by tenants to save the Union Market has garnered 2,046 signatures so far. As the result of ongoing litigation between master landlord, Vestar/Kimco and sub-leaser Andrea Young, the tenants at the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin are being asked to vacate by Aug. 31.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Recently, Chong Bok Manalo has taken to blasting music from her bakery stall, Braga, at the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy to get customers’ attention.

“I make loud music to show we are in here,” said Manalo. “Just follow the music.”

Positioned at the back of the food hall, Braga is among the few tenants left at the nearly abandoned market.

The space, which opened in 2014, is described as an “industrial-chic market with an open plan offering food stalls, restaurants and boutiques” on its website, but after a shaky opening and a high turnover rate, the Union Market may be on its last legs.

“Around the beginning of March, the market was served with a pay or quit,” said Leonard Chan, co-owner of the market’s popular tiki concept, Stowaway. “It wasn’t directed at any of us, it was directed at our landlord at the time, Andrea Young.”

Roba Noodle at the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Young subleased the space from master landlord and owner of the District, Vestar/Kimco, and then rented spaces to other businesses. Now a lawsuit between the two parties may prevent the market’s current tenants from finishing out those subleases.

Chan said legal notices continued to arrive, but he and his Stowaway business partner, Dominic Iapello, were assured by Vestar that the matter was being resolved.

“In fact, the one thing we did hear was someone from the Vestar office told a tenant here, “We are going through some legal things, we can’t talk about it, but trust me things are going to get better,’ ” said Iapello.

Instead, things got worse.

Central Bar and Kettle Bar vacated in May. Rumors swirled among the tenants that Vestar planned to evict them.

Iapello and Chan said they attempted to explore their options, first with Young and then Vestar, offering to take over the Central Bar or helping to find new tenants to fill in the empty stalls.

“We approached them and said if that’s on the table, we’ll take over the space,” said Chan. “If you guys don’t want that, and you guys want to manage the space again, we will just fill up all the tenants. We don’t want a referral fee, we just want to see this place thrive.”

In July, they received a response from Vestar’s legal representation confirming that their client was entertaining a new concept that would not allow for current subtenants to remain on the property. Aug. 31 was named as a potential move-out date.

“We don’t know what is going on. We don’t when the utilities are going to be shut, if we are going to have toilet paper, if our doors are going to be locked. There is just this huge unknown,” said Chan. “How come we haven’t been given notice? Why don’t we have more time to find a new location?”

Owner Chong Bok Manalo behind the counter at Braga, located in the Union Market.
Owner Chong Bok Manalo behind the counter at Braga, located in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Manalo voiced similar concerns.

“I understand Vestar, but they need to consider every tenant because we didn’t do anything,” said Manalo. “Why didn’t the company let us know?”

A marketing representative from Vestar told TimesOC via email they were unable to comment on pending litigation.

Manalo and her husband put most of their retirement money into their business, which is less than halfway through its four-year lease. Braga is known for cakes, custom macarons and their popular mugwort cookie, and Manalo is still taking orders via Instagram @braga_baker.

Vicky Liu, owner of Little Pan Fried Bun, didn’t even get the chance to open her soup dumpling concept.

“Originally, this was supposed to be my second location,” said Liu, whose first location is in Santa Ana. “It was almost ready to open this month, and then I got this information that we need to close.”

Liu took over her space from the previous tenant and began paying rent in December 2020, while preparing to open by securing permits and repairing equipment. Then she signed a lease with Young.

Little Pan Fried Bun owner Vicky Liu stands in her unfinished eatery at the Union Market in Tustin on Aug. 11.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“I bought from the other party, but I wanted to have my full ownership, so I signed a new contract with her,” said Liu, “and she agreed to that.”

Young could not be reached for comment.

Sebastian Cabrera of Black Steel Barbershop had just upgraded to a larger space and was making plans to add more barber chairs.

“I moved when this spot became available, then three months later [Union Market] gets a notice on the window saying pay or quit,” said Cabrera.

Cabrera said he takes his tools home every night.

Owner Sebastian Cabrera at Black Steel Barbershop in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy.
Owner Sebastian Cabrera at Black Steel Barbershop in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“I take my stuff home with me in case they lock the doors,” Cabrera said. “An eviction is an eviction.”

Sam Zheng, owner of boba tea concept Leaf N Cream, opened during the summer of 2019 with a five-year lease.

“I did not owe my landlord any rent, I paid all my rent on time,” said Zheng. “I have all the payment proof.”

Zheng plans to focus on his location on Newport Avenue in Tustin while he looks for a new second location.

“Right now, I really don’t know what to say to my customers,” said Zheng.

Owner Sam Zheng at Leaf N Cream, located in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin.
Owner Sam Zheng at Leaf N Cream, located in the Union Market at the District at Tustin Legacy in Tustin.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Meanwhile owner and chef at Roba Noodle, Jin Heo, said he hasn’t received any notification of pending eviction.

“There are so many rumors right now,” said Heo. “We didn’t hear anything from Vestar. Then someone told me we have to leave at the end of August, but I didn’t hear that directly, no letter or phone call or email. I didn’t get anything.”

Once he is notified, Heo said he plans to ask for more time.

“If I have to leave, I understand that, but my request is give us more time to find a new location,” said Heo.

The confusion extends to the customers too.

A one-star Yelp review dated Aug. 14 reads: “What happened to Union Market?!? My husband and I were at the District last night and decided to walk around Union Market to see if we could find a place to eat. Shocked (is an understatement) by what we saw ... the place looks abandoned!”

A post on Reddit asks, “Does anyone have any insight on the sudden closures at the union market in Tustin district?”

Chan launched a petition to save Stowaway and all Union Market tenants that has garnered 2,046 signatures.

“We just wanted to create awareness, and we wanted our voice to be heard,” said Chan.

Stowaway had three years left on their lease, but Chan said their loose timeline for closing is the end of September.

Until then, they are on borrowed time.

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.


Advertisement