Dozens of locals packed the seats, lined the walls and spilled over into an overflow space at a Palm Coast City Council meeting Feb. 15 to urge the council to work out a new lease with the Green Lion Cafe on the city-owned Palm Harbor Golf Club. The council heard them, and has scrapped plans to end its contract with the restaurant, owned by Marlow family of Flagler Beach.
"We should be celebrating our success and what we've achieved together. And instead, I'm sorry, the last week's meeting was intended to destroy it.
— CHRISTOPHER MARLOW, co-owner, the Green Lion Cafe
"I’d like to be the first one to apologize to the Marlows," Councilman Victor Barbosa said at the meeting. "You should be proud of what you built here, being the number one restaurant."
The Green Lion Cafe is rated as the number one restaurant in Palm Coast on Tripadvisor.com.
The council, a week ago, had directed city staff to end the existing lease and solicit proposals for a new company to run the golf course restaurant, to bring it up to market rate rent. Calling the lease a "sweetheart deal" that was "robbing" taxpayers, councilmen had said the restaurant's $600-per-month rent was too low.
But the Marlow family had invested $100,000 to renovate the city-owned restaurant building — a fact one councilman, Eddie Branquinho, said he wasn't aware of when he made his decision last week.
And by the time the council decided last week to solicit proposals and end the restaurant's existing contact, the Green Lion had already agreed in negotiations with city staff to a doubling of its rent this year and stepped increases that would reach $2,503 in 2026.
At the Feb. 15 meeting, the Marlows and their supporters reminded the City Council that the restaurant building had been in rough shape when the Marlows took it over, and is now successful.
"Twenty minutes at last Tuesday's workshop is about to destroy a great relationship between the Green Lion and our Palm Coast community. This did not need to happen."
"We're not taking all the credit. We've done it together," Green Lion co-owner Christopher Marlow said at the meeting. "We should be celebrating our success and what we've achieved together. And instead, I'm sorry, the last week's meeting was intended to destroy it. We're being punished for our success."
Marlow provided photos of the condition of the restaurant building before his family took it over, submitting the images to the city clerk.
"There's only value there because we created it," he said.
Co-owner Carolyn Marlow said the Green Lion had assumed all of the risks associated with the renovation.
"We worked out a deal that we would invest our money into this failing operation, and for a very low rent, try to get back our money," she said. "... Anybody here, you should all be saying, 'Thank you Golden Lion.'"
When the city solicited bids for the restaurant in 2017, Christopher Marlow said, the Green Lion was the only company to submit a bid, other than an ice cream shop whose bid didn't meet the city's requirements.
"You said you're protecting [residents] from us 'robbing' them, but you're not protecting them. They don't need your protection," Marlow said. "They don't want it. What they want is the Green Lion. And they're all here today to tell you that they want the Green Lion. And I hope that you listen."
The restaurant is willing to pay fair rent, he said. "There's a better way to do this. Let's please move forward," he said. "We can find a way to work together."
Residents recalled positive experiences at the restaurant and asked why the city would undermine a successful and popular local business.
"I'm here wondering, like many here today, how we got to the point that the city of Palm Coast will not be renewing the lease of the number-one Tripadvisor-rated Green Lion restaurant," resident Tim Griffin said. "... Twenty minutes at last Tuesday's workshop is about to destroy a great relationship between the Green Lion and our Palm Coast community. This did not need to happen."
Former Flagler Beach Mayor Linda Provencher, who'd worked for the Marlows for more than 20 years, told the council that she'd thought the Marlows were crazy to take over the restaurant building at the Palm Harbor Golf Club when they already had a successful restaurant — the Golden Lion — in Flagler Beach.
"They had many hurdles to overcome," she said. Still, she said, the family was able to make the restaurant successful.
It also didn't make sense to her, she said, that the City Council simply told city staff to solicit proposals and end the Green Lion's contract without even talking to its ownership or holding a formal vote.
Only one of the councilmen who's on the council now — Nick Klufas — had also been on the council in 2017 when the city first approved a contact with the Green Lion.
The golf course and its concession had been in such bad shape in 2016, before the Marlows took over, that the city wasn't sure it would be viable, he said. The city was paying a management company, Kemper Sports, to run both. The course was losing money. The restaurant was a hole in the wall.
"I saw it at its worst; I’m seeing it today at its peak," Klufas said. "... Not only have they accomplished that, but I think along the way they have made a tremendous community partner."
Councilman Ed Danko, who'd been sharply critical last week of the existing lease, thanked the crowd for speaking at the Feb. 15 meeting.
"I want to thank you, everyone, for coming out today. Obviously you're all very passionate about it," he said.
To the Marlows, he added, "I want to thank you about informing us about all of the things that you did to make this restaurant successful. ... This is the way government works. You come out here, respectfully, state your position, we reply back to you respectfully."
Mayor David Alfin suggested that the council have city staff determine market rent for the property, halt the city's request for proposals, place the Green Lion contract on an upcoming council business meeting agenda, and remove an existing contract clause that allows the city to terminate the lease "for convenience" with six months' notice, replacing that with a clause that allows termination for cause. Other council members agreed.
"I appreciate the hard work and effort," Alfin said. "I appreciate the turnout and all that you have voiced today."