- December 13, 2022
Palm Coast City Council members want to end the city's contract with the popular Green Lion Cafe at the city-owned Palm Harbor Golf Course and solicit proposals for a new restaurant, saying the city isn't getting enough rent money from the current lease.
"That place was a hole in the wall. They literally couldn't give it away. ... We took a gigantic gamble on that place."
— CHRISTOPHER MARLOW, co-owner, the Grreen Lion Cafe
The family that owns the business is contesting the councilmen's framing of the issue and planning to attend an upcoming City Council meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 15, to make their case during the meeting's public comment period.
They have asked supporters in the community to attend and address the council as well.
"We're being punished for being successful," Green Lion Cafe co-owner Christopher Marlow said on Feb. 11. "They need to hear what the people have to say, because this is wrong. This is unfair."
He noted that the Green Lion has already agreed to substantial rent hikes — a doubling this year, then gradual increases until the rent reaches $2,503 in 2026 — and that although the dollar amount of the lease has been low, the Marlows have had to invest approximately $100,000 in renovations to the city-owned restaurant building to make it profitable.
When the Green Lion took over the restaurant in 2017, he noted, the city had gone out to bid and gotten no interest from anyone else, except from an ice cream company whose bid hadn't met the city's requirements.
Only one of the councilmen who's on the council now — Nick Klufas — had also been on a councilman then.
Klufas, though he agreed that the current rent is too low, had reminded his fellow councilmen during a discussion about the restaurant during last week's council workshop that the Marlows had taken the "hole-in-the-wall" restaurant and turned into one of the city's most well-regarded eateries: The Green Lion Cafe has a five-star rating and is ranked number one out of 97 Palm Coast restaurants on TripAdvisor.
Marlow added that the restaurant building is in a tough location for establishing a restaurant.
"What is 'fair market value' for a 30-year-old double wide trailer, not on a main road, with no signage? They literally couldn't give that place away," Marlow said. "... We took a gigantic gamble on that place. That place looks nothing like it did. We invested $100,000 in turning that concession sandwich shop into the best restaurant in Palm Coast."
Now, instead of paying someone else to manage the restaurant — as the city had for years when Kemper Sports was running the golf course property and concessions — the city is receiving some income from it, he said.
The restaurant came to the attention of the council at a Feb. 8 council workshop precisely because city staff was planning to raise the rent there and enter a new contract with the Marlows.
"There was no negotiating on the pricing; we just agreed to it," Marlow said.
The family had been communicating with the city for four or five months to work out other particulars, he said. They hadn't expected the topic to generate any controversy or lead to a vote at the workshop, so they hadn't attended.
But when city Chief Development Officer Jason DeLorenzo gave a slide presentation about the plan at the workshop, councilmen Ed Danko, Victor Barbosa and Eddie Branquinho repeatedly interjected, saying that the rent was too low, a "sweetheart deal," and "robbing" taxpayers.
The council, while it doesn't vote at workshops, can take action by consensus without a vote, and it did that on Feb. 8, telling DeLorenzo to prepare a request for proposals for the property in order to bring it up to market rate. That also means terminating the city's contract with the Green Lion, which the city can do with six months' notice.
"We were caught off guard. We were shocked to hear what happened," Marlow said. "... I'm absolutely broken hearted. I'm sad for the people that work at the Green Lion; I'm sad for their families."
The restaurant employs abut 30 people, he said. "The reason why that restaurant is so well run is because we brought in such a phenomenal crew, and we have the best staff in Palm Coast," he said.
If the council, at the upcoming Tuesday meeting, reaffirms its decision to end the Green Lion Cafe's contract and solicit proposals, the Green Lion could submit a proposal. But the Marlows won't.
"Absolutely not. Why would I ever do that?" Marlow said.
For now, he said, "We just want to find a way that benefits both parties. All we want to do is just continue to run our business and continue to serve the great people of Palm Coast."