Café Reva in Pittsfield forced to close, owner says
PITTSFIELD -- Café Reva is a compact breakfast and lunch spot on Tyler Street that has offered gourmet-caliber foods in a casual, diner-style atmosphere for the past 11 years. On a typical weekend, the place is filled to capacity.
This weekend, however, the restaurant will serve its last meals.
The kitchen's range hood system and fire suppression system is out of compliance, according to city fire code. In addition, the kitchen's exhaust system would subsequently have to be reconfigured to bring everything up to date.
These systems came with the building when the restaurant owner began leasing the space, but the building owner apparently has no interest in maintaining the infrastructure.
"It's so surreal. I'm just coming to grips with everything. It's going to be an emotional weekend," said Aura Whitman, the owner and chef at Café Reva, located at 238 Tyler St.
Whitman told The Eagle the news on Thursday afternoon. The restaurant was open last weekend, and is typically closed this week, a time when Whitman sends her two daughters back to school and her family celebrates the Jewish New Year holiday, Rosh Hashanah.
She said she asked someone three months ago to come in to give an estimate for a range hood cleaning, and was refused a cleaning because the components were found to be non-compliant with city code. She then got a warning from the Pittsfield Fire Department about fixing the issue, but was able to stay open through the summer season.
Last Friday, the Pittsfield Fire Department finally had to issue an order to stop kitchen operations due to the non-compliant systems; the hood hadn't been professionally cleaned in a year, putting safety at risk.
"They tried to help and I know it's their job to make things safe," said Whitman, who worked with Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski.
"Our problem was our hands are kind of tied with this," said Czerwinski. "Two systems were out of compliance. The estimates to get them fixed were in the tens of thousands of dollars. I can understand her not wanting to put that kind of money into a building she doesn't own."
Whitman said she was disappointed with her landlord, who she said refused to help make the investment to bring the equipment up to code, even after she offered to pay for half the necessary expenses.
The chef-owner said she tried negotiating the cost of repairs -- estimated to be around $28,000 to $30,000 -- with the building owner, Tony Huang of The Heights Real Estate Company in New York City. Whitman said the restaurant equipment was already part of the property when she began renting the space. Before Café Reva, the space was home to Soup and Such Restaurant.
The entire property, which is listed at the addresses of 228-240 Tyler St., includes street level businesses Tyler Welding and J&J Locksmith. There are also residential apartments rented by Heights Real Estate on the second floor.
Heights Real Estate also manages residential and commercial properties in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York (including Albany), Pennsylvania and Tennessee, as listed on its website.
According to records on file at the Pittsfield Board of Assessors Office, the value of the building and the land are assessed at $242,100, with the majority of the value in the structure itself ($195,200). The building was constructed in 1900, and a subsidiary company listed as Berkshire Heights has owned it since 2002.
Cheuky Pun is the Heights Real Estate agent who negotiates leases at this listing. He told The Eagle on Thursday afternoon that as a lessee, Café Reva should be responsible for the equipment upgrade. He said that Whitman is also due to sign a new lease.
Asked if Heights Real Estate would look for another tenant for the space once the restaurant closes, Pun said, "I have no comment on that."
"I would love to sign a new lease if they fix [the equipment]," said Whitman.
Czerwinski, who said he's enjoyed being a customer of Cafe Reva's over the last decade, said he tried to advocate for the repairs.
"I even called New York City and tried to convey to these guys that it was a shame to put this woman out of business," Czerwinski said.
Ultimately, the bottom line loss is for the five staff members who will lose their jobs after the kitchen closes on Sunday and for the steady flow of customers it served.
"It's a shame," said Czerwinski. "Wonderful people and a wonderful staff, they always took care of the customers. I never had a bad meal there. It's one of the best places to go for breakfast or lunch."
On its website, the restaurant describes itself as being a place serving "innovative American cuisine with fusions of chef's travels. You can have bouillabaisse while your companion is having a BLT."
Café Reva has consistently been voted by readers as their "Best Restaurant for Breakfast" pick in The Eagle's annual "Best of the Berkshires" Berkshires Week magazine contest; it recently earned the top distinction for 2013. It also earned a 2013 Certificate of Excellence from the online review website TripAdvisor, for a guest rating of 4.5 out of a 5-point scale. TripAdvisor also gave it a No. 4 out of 143 ranking among restaurants listed in Pittsfield.
Whitman said she'll continue to pay rent there until she figures out what to do with what she does own of the interior, including other pieces of equipment, cookware, furniture and decor.
She said she and her family are happy living in the Berkshires and she's open to the idea of starting another venture on her own terms.
"It's been a good run," said Whitman. "But over the past 11 years, I haven't really slowed down. I don't get to spend Saturdays and Sundays much with my kids. Maybe now is the time to slow down and really think about what I'll do next."
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