Goko Café will not be closing its doors in November as outraged customers and city officials had expected.
The owners of the popular eatery signed a new lease on Tuesday, with rent sandwiched somewhere between the $1.26 a square foot they had been paying and the $4.50-to-$5.50 commercial rate the building owners quoted for the area. The new lease is on a par with the ones signed about two weeks ago by the three other tenants in the building.
“When we all sat down together [Tuesday] and talked, we came to the conclusion that there had been a lack of communication,” said Cary Glenn, co-owner of the building with Richard Zona.
Until Tuesday, Goko owners Connie Stojkowski and George Risteski were telling customers they would be closing their doors Nov. 4, to be replaced by a Quiznos franchise, which they thought had been the property owner’s master plan since they bought the building in November 2006.
Glenn said he and Zona never wanted Goko to leave, but they had doubted they could reach an agreement with the Goko owners.
“When we bought the building, we talked to all four tenants and told them the rents would be going up at a later date,” Glenn said. “We did not touch the rents for a year. Up until December, Goko was paying 76 cents a square foot and after that, $1.26 a square foot, the increase set by the previous owner. We did not touch the rents for a year.”
Glenn said considerable money had been spent on renovations that restored the building’s original charm.
“We expected to get a pat on the back and a thank you for the restoration and for keeping three of the tenants,” Zona said. “We wanted to keep them all, but you can’t force a tenant to stay.”
The dismay expressed by loyal Goko customers when they heard the restaurant would be replaced by a Quiznos touched the hearts of Stojkowski and Risteski.
“I cannot find enough words to thank the residents for their support,” Stojkowski said. “It is very, very gratifying.”
Goko has been open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day for the past 15 years, tucked in a building on the corner Thalia Street and South Coast Highway. It is said to be the first restaurant in Laguna to offer organic food. It also offers its customers a wireless Internet connection for their laptops.
“Parents are comfortable here and the kids love it,” Stojkowski said. “Our customer base is very young, and we have been feeding them lean, healthy food for years.”
The public outcry in opposition to the replacement of Goko by a franchise resonated with Glenn, a Laguna Beach resident for 20 years, and Zona, also a local, owners of Main Beach Realty for seven years. Even if Goko had declined the lease offered Tuesday, Quiznos was out of the picture, Glenn said on Monday before they renewed their offer.
“We listened to the feedback and we have reconsidered putting in a Quiznos,” Glenn said. “Clearly that was not what people want.”
Despite the reprieve for Goko, Mayor Toni Iseman will pursue the expansion of the geographical limits of a provision in the Downtown Specific Plan that discourages formula-based businesses. The plan extends southward only to Legion Street.
Iseman’s proposal is tentatively scheduled for the Nov. 6 council meeting.
“We want to keep a mix and we don’t want to put small businesses as risk,” Iseman said.
She opposes what she calls the “Walmart syndrome.”
“I visited my hometown of 20,000 people in Nebraska, and there was only one place to get tires changed — Walmart,” Iseman said.
All the little corner-service stations were gone, mowed down by the retail giant, according to Iseman. A Walmart can come in with low prices, drive out small businesses and then increase the prices, she said.
“That is exaggerated, but formula-based chains have the advantage of buying in bulk and preventing their lines from being sold in other stores and that just cripples small businesses,” Iseman said.
“It would be wonderful if people knew that Laguna Beach is looking for one-of-a-kind businesses.”
Goko easily passes the Iseman test.
“One of the things about the area between Thalia and Bluebird and below Temple Terrace is that it has always been a walk-down-get-a-bite-to-eat neighborhood,” said Oak Street resident Anne Johnson, a city planning commissioner. “I’d hate to see little places like Goko being taken away.
“This little neighborhood has had its own identity for a long time and these little places reflect that. I am concerned as a resident and a planning commissioner. I swear I haven’t gone out to brunch since Poor Richard’s closed.
“It makes me sad that I can’t see a solution.”
City Attorney Philip Kohn said the council has the authority to extend the reach of its land use standards that discourage formula-based businesses.
“The courts have upheld cities’ right to control the diversity of commercial uses,” Kohn said.
In the long run, it is the customers who decide whether a business succeeds or fails.
“They vote with their feet and their wallets,” Iseman said.