Fruita landlord,  Hot Tomato Cafe owners at odds about rent hike

Jen Zeuner, left, and partner Anne Keller hustle to keep pies coming out of the oven at the Hot Tomato in Fruita



Disagreements on terms of a new lease may leave a Fruita business out in the cold.

The lease for Hot Tomato Cafe and Pizzeria, 201 E. Aspen Ave., expires
June 30.

Hot Tomato Cafe owners Jen Zeuner and Anne Keller won’t sign the new lease they have been given because they can’t justify paying more in rent without upgrades to the existing building, Zeuner said.

The Fruita Masonic Lodge owns the building. Lodge member and its attorney John Groves said the increase in rent is appropriate for the downtown Fruita location.

In addition, some of the building improvements Zeuner and Keller asked the Fruita Masonic Lodge to make are not its responsibility because the improvements are related to the women’s business operations.

Hot Tomato Cafe has been at this location for four years. Rent started at $510 and is now $600 a month, Zeuner said.

“We are still here because of that (low rental rates),” she said.

The owners of Hot Tomato Cafe paid the $600 rent for 2,300 square feet.

The rent does not include maintenance costs and property taxes, which Zeuner said she pays.

Groves said the time has come to increase rental rates at the property. The lodge has offered to let her pay $1,340 a month, he said.

However, “we are not interested in making improvements on the building,” Groves added.

Without the improvements, Zeuner is worried maintenance costs will continue to escalate.

Zeuner thinks her landlords should pay for a sprinkler system, electrical upgrades and restrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act because the spot she rents does not meet building codes, she said.

Zeuner also wants the Fruita Masonic Lodge to address other infrastructure concerns, including a new cooling system, because of pizza ovens and summer heat.

The lodge is responsible for fixing anything related to the structure of the building, Groves said.

However, certain building improvements, such as ventilation, are not the landlord’s responsibility, he said.

“If the reason for the upgrades accommodates her business, we feel those are her improvements to make,” Groves said.

Zeuner contends that she can’t afford to offer a full menu, keep the staff of 12 and pay for all
building upgrades.

Groves counters that Zeuner and Keller meeting their costs is not the Fruita Masonic Lodge’s problem.

With Hot Tomato Cafe and the Fruita Masonic Lodge, which meets monthly at the building, at a lease crossroads, Zeuner said the final day for Hot Tomato Cafe is June 20.

On that day, the cafe is holding a benefit concert to raise money to help the owners pay for the move. Zeuner thinks it will cost $10,000 to move equipment and pay the cafe staff to do it.

Fliers about the benefit titled “Save the Tomato” have been distributed around town and appear on the cafe’s Web site, http://www.hottomatocafe.com.

Ideally, Hot Tomato Cafe could relocate to the former Fruita brewery building next door,
Zeuner said. She is waiting to hear back from the building’s out-of-state owner about that possibility.

“The reason we are here is to be a downtown Fruita business,” Keller said. “It’s what made us a successful business. I like to be downtown. It represents our business.”

Local musician Paul Harshman, who plays with Flat Top Reed, is organizing the concert for the June 20 benefit.

Harshman worries that a small business which has “contributed greatly” to the Fruita community is at risk of going out of business, according to an e-mail sent to the Sentinel.

The Fruita Masonic Lodge has offered Hot Tomato Cafe “a couple months holdover” if Zeuner and Keller need more time to figure out what to do with their business, Groves said.


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