"Lotfi is a liar! Get your own dream, Lotfi!" Alberta Canales shouts as she pickets in front of Boulevard Tacos on N Rosa Parks Way. The new taco shop is in the space that previously housed El Burrito Loco—Canales' business for 16 years—until building owner Siamak Lotfi opted not to renew her lease last July.
Now Canales is furious because Lotfi opened his own taqueria in the exact location—a move she considers nothing short of theft.
"Someone kicks you out and then he does the same food," she says. "Why doesn't he put his own authentic Middle Eastern food in there, or a franchise, instead of stealing my business?"
Canales bought out a sandwich shop in the storefront back in the '90s, and has since opened a second El Burrito Loco location on NE 82nd.
After Lotfi purchased the building in 2000, tension rose between owner and tenant over the condition of the building, which had major plumbing problems. Despite those problems, Canales wanted to renew her lease. But she got a letter from Lotfi's attorney instead, telling her to vacate by the lease's expiration date, July 31 ["No Mo' Loco in NoPo," News, Aug 2].
Since El Burrito Loco shut down on N Rosa Parks, Canales says Lotfi has hired two of her former employees, a cashier and a cook, and has tried to "steal" more cooks from her NE 82nd restaurant. In fact, she says that in 2006 one of her night cooks told her Lotfi had tried to convince him to leave El Burrito Loco and go into business with Lotfi. Because of this, Canales is certain that Lotfi had been planning on stealing her business for years. "Boulevard Tacos is not a remodeled El Burrito Loco—I want people who go there to know what kind of people they are dealing with."
Lotfi, as the building's owner, can refuse to renew a lease and then start his own business if he likes—and he certainly doesn't consider opening Boulevard Tacos to be theft. He admits that some of Canales' old employees now work at Boulevard Tacos, but points out that his other employees come from several different restaurants. He also denies trying to steal her business in 2006.
He defends Boulevard Tacos: "This is a different name," he says. "Stores come and go in the Pearl, one Italian restaurant shuts down, another opens up, that doesn't mean it's stealing their customers."
According to Joice Taylor, board chair of the North/Northeast Business Association, this situation isn't common. "It does happen, but we frown on the practice," she says.
Boulevard Tacos opened Wednesday, January 23, but Canales, her family, and friends have been picketing in front of Boulevard Tacos and Lotfi's home since Sunday, January 20.
Lotfi, for his part, doesn't seem fazed by the protestors. "I don't confront them; they're upset, they want to vent. I understand their point of view."
Canales plans on picketing as long as she can, as a warning to others. "All small business owners should really look at this—lease a place, and you have to be careful, because this could happen to you."