Hapa Izakaya owner blindsided by closure due to sky-high Robson rents

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      Hapa Izakaya owner Justin Ault was coaching his daughter's softball game on June 7 in the evening when he received a call from his Robson Street manager that a bailiff had arrived to change the locks.

      It was a shock to Ault.

      "They were giving us indication that we'd have a few months to figure some stuff out and work on things," he told the Georgia Straight by phone.

      The bailiff posted a notice of seizure, dated June 7, which states that $96,694.46 is owed under the Rent Distress Act and must be paid within five days of the notice.

      While Ault had been having trouble keeping up with rent payments, he had not anticipated they'd shut down his place so abruptly.

      As an industry rule of thumb, he said that rent for restaurants should be around 10 percent of sales. But with a rent of $33,000 a month, he said they were nowhere near that level.

      Since opening the restaurant in 2003, he had expanded it from 55 seats in one strata unit to the current 210 seats (45 seats in Hapa Ramen and 165 seats in Hapa Izakaya) in three units, encompassing 5,400 square feet. Rent had risen over the years from $26 per square foot in 2003 to the current $48 per square foot.

      He had opened Hapa Ramen in January of this year as an attempt to make things work, and had also closed Hapa Beach in Kitsilano in August 2015.

      Hapa Ramen had opened beside Hapa Izakaya in January.
      Craig Takeuchi

      He said he's doing his best to relocate the 30 staff members of Hapa Robson to his Coal Harbour and Yaletown locations, which remain open (as do his restaurants in Calgary and Toronto).

      "We can improve the quality of our kitchens and our serving staff at the other two locations by injecting our good staff from Robson into there, and we're trying to do that with minimal job loss," he said, looking at the upside of the situation.

      However, Ault is concerned about the impact that skyrocketing rents are having both on businesses and the community. As a business owner, Ault also contributes to numerous community events and causes, including cancer fundraisers and, owing to his Japanese Canadian heritage, organizations such as the Powell Street Festival, Tonari Gumi, and Nikkei Place (for which he is on the board of directors).

      "It [the retail space] could very well sit empty...for the next eight months with no revenue coming in, and you can see all the vacancies on Robson," he said. "When places like Starbucks and Chapters can't justify it, like what is that saying?"

      He opined that the survival-of-the-fittest approach doesn't benefit the community with only multinational chains being able to last in Vancouver's overheated real-estate market.

      "If the city wants vibrant neighbourhoods and all that, the people that own the spaces—if they're not owned by the businesses that are running them—they have to offer something that can allow the business to survive," he said.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at twitter.com/cinecraig or on Facebook.