As Restaurants Struggle, Landlords Step In

Three Monkeys co-owner Mary Rice helps a customer.
Three Monkeys co-owner Mary Rice helps a customer.
click to enlarge Three Monkeys co-owner Mary Rice helps a customer. - DOYLE MURPHY
Three Monkeys co-owner Mary Rice helps a customer.

As food writer Cheryl Baehr’s cover story in last week’s RFT attests, St. Louis restaurants are being devastated by COVID-19.

“In mere weeks, the St. Louis restaurant community as a whole has gone from touting several James Beard Award nominations as a sign of its ascendance to having its very existence threatened by a global pandemic,” she wrote.

Many restaurants’ biggest cost after food and labor is rent. This means a lot of beleaguered restaurants will have to turn to their landlords for a break, and at least some of those landlords have proven willing to ease the financial burden.

The RFT has written plenty about bad landlords, but in this situation it looks like some property owners in St. Louis are trying to cut their tenants some slack.

“Our landlords have been great,” says Zach Rice, who with his wife Mary owns Three Monkeys in Tower Grove South. “They’ve given us a break on rent through April. They’re committed to keeping us in here. They want to see this neighborhood succeed.”

Even if a landlord isn’t motivated by a sense of civic duty, there’s also the reality that if they evict a commercial tenant for not paying rent, it’s unlikely that a new business will want to move in and set up shop during a pandemic.

“People correctly associate certain businesses such as restaurants as being on the ‘front lines’ of the economic impact this will have,” says Paul Behrns, a CPA with SFW Partners. “But it is important to remember there will be a domino effect that goes far beyond the restaurant itself. With a large-scale stoppage it is not only the restaurant and its employees who are affected, but also those in the restaurant food and equipment supply industry, the landlords who own the space restaurants operate out of, and the banks who lend the funds to these businesses.”

As Kyle Howerton puts it: “My initial reaction is that this is really bad for everyone.” Howerton is a principal at AHM Group, a small St. Louis-based investment firm that rents the space to Three Monkeys as well as other residential and commercial properties along Morganford Road. “There is light at the end of the tunnel. But everyone has to work together.”

All the sectors of the economy, Howerton says, need to realize that people shouldn’t be punished for a pandemic outside their control.

For their part, AHM has provided commercial tenants several months of free rent. The rent came with the stipulation that a portion of the money be used to put cash in the hands of those tenants’ employees.

“Just as much as the business owners themselves, the people we really worry about are the hourly employees at those businesses who are more likely to be paycheck to paycheck. They’re the people everyone should be most concerned about,” Howerton says.

Landlords like AHM have to answer to the banks who loaned them the money to buy the property in the first place and who can foreclose on the properties if AHM misses payments.

“I’m sure 99 percent of landlords out there are in constant communication with their lenders and working with them to see if they can defer payments for a month or two,” he adds.

Liz Austin is the vice president of marketing for Green Street St. Louis, the real estate and development company behind the Chroma building in the Grove as well as many other properties around St. Louis.

“We’re panicked,” she says. “It’s been hard to see these amazing people struggling right now.”

Austin says that Green Street has been able to able to offer deferred rent to some of its retail tenants, but the extent to which it can do this depends in large part on the lending bank. Austin stressed that at the moment there are still a lot of unknowns, including how the reently passed government relief will benefit tenants long-term.

The one silver lining of this specific crisis, she says, is that everyone is in it together.

“It’s taken all of us to build this restaurant and boutique business scene in St. Louis,” she adds. “It will take all of us to save it.”