1886 Buffalo Café has found themselves in conflict with the city of Calgary over a lease dispute dating back to 2018 when their 15 year lease came up for renewal.
The old 1886 lumber building that the restaurant inhabits had been discussing revitalization plans for the area with Harvard Development for 10 years. However, for one reason or another, it was always put off to subsequent years. Harvard Development owns almost all of the buildings and properties in the same neighborhood except the Buffalo café which is owned, instead, by the City of Calgary.
The pending revitalization project surrounding the building was the cause of the dispute. When the owner attempted to renew the 15 year contract she was instead told that the city could only offer a month to month lease as it was uncertain what kind of disruption the project could cause to the café.
TBT was able to sit down for an interview with current owner Joanna Mcleod. Joanna took the café over from her parents eight years ago and has continued 'on her family's tradition of serving the community.
“They just kind of pinned that on the Harvard development.” Says Joanne. “Even though the City of Calgary was also talking about revitalizing the Eau Claire Plaza.” She went on to say that the city told her it was a possibility the building would have to be moved because of the Harvard Project. They then talked her into the month to month lease assuring her that it was her best option for her business in case of any disruption to her business.
Although they had several assurances Joanne still went out of her way to try and secure a lengthier lease agreement, even meeting with a representative of the mayor to discuss concerns surrounding the month-to-month lease. She recalls being “met with empathy” by those she spoke to.
The city eventually shared their development plans with her, inviting her to the open house to see models for everything that was to be built, the landscaping plans, and the area the building would be moved to. She was also provided a public link to view the development plans.
In these plans she noted that the café building was cited several times, not as a historical site, but as the 1886 Buffalo Café. These acknowledgements discussed the move, additional bathrooms and sitting areas that were specifically included for the café itself.
Joanne explained her thoughts at that time by stating, “I didn’t think to clarify anything because when your business name is being used in plans you really do expect that your business will be moved with the plans… The community can also see that the café is there (in the plans) so there would be no community pushback because why would anyone question where a building is if it’s in the plans? If the building wasn’t titled with our name or perhaps wasn’t even in the plans I feel like the community- and us as well- would have clarified (what the plan was)... There would have been an opportunity to have those conversations but since there wasn’t and they were very open in sharing those plans with us, we felt that we were always going to be a part of the revitalization process… the slight interruption to our business would be slight.”
Joanna remembers having gone through the construction process before since they had previously been shut down so the building could be raised. Additionally, Joanne recalls that the community was really developed around the café and seeing new buildings and businesses pop up was the norm. This is why she stated “Maybe it was naïve of me to think it wouldn’t take more then a month or two to move a house.”
The 1886 Buffalo café was also put under the assumption that phase 1 and 2 would be less disruptive and they would be able to continue on with business as usual until phase 3.
February of 2020 the café was offered a 5 year lease. “We felt like that was a huge win for us,” Joanna said. “After all of our meetings and trying to be heard and have everyone understand how important it was for us to get a lease...we were just really excited.”
Joanna responded to the offer wanting to accept but also requesting the lease be “reworded to reflect a typical commercial lease.” Previous to this offer Joanna was forced into paying $10,000 to replace the furnace. Typically that is the responsibility of the landlord, but the lease was too vague so she was forced to cough up the huge financial chunk. Amending the language on the lease would avoid such situations from arising again
The following month COVID hit and everything was chaos for the whole world. Joanna tried to reach out to the city on several occasions throughout the year to sign the lease contract and received either no response or got was pushed aside for other meetings, ect.
The city has said that although the offer was extended Joanna had not accepted or pursued it. However, Joanna has proof of emails wherein she has consistently chased after the lease and kept getting shrugged off and pushed back.
Then in November of 2021 they were informed that they would have to be kept on the month to month lease again blaming the revitalization plan. The offer then extended to free rent to act as covid support. Nothing in this communication gave any foreshadowing to the Cafe possibly not being included in the future plans. Again, Joanna has proof and documentation of her side of events and the city has yet to provide proof of their claims.
Throughout the month of January 2021 the Barley Mill shut down and new tenants were set to move in and begin their own renovations. That’s when Joanna’s instincts kicked in and she asked herself, “Why would anybody move into a building that is going to be taken down? The Harvard development owns that building so I’m like, “clearly Harvard development is not going through with their project”.” She then noticed construction happening down by the river that was being done by the city as well as ticketing the trees in front of the cafe.
Feb. 1 Joanna called her leasing agent and was informed that her business would have 90 days to leave the premises permanently. The usual time frame to give a business is 30 days to leave a property but they allowed Joanna the extra 60. This meant that the cafe only had until April 30th to find a new plan or close its doors permanently. Although she was grateful, not only is 90 days still not a lot of time to move a business, but she was also frustrated that she had to call them instead of the other way around. Joanna said sarcastically, “After being tenants for 40 years that’s just… lovely.”
From there things turned into a “mad scramble”. Joanna gathered and poured over all of the documents to see if they had somehow misunderstood the information or communications provided by the city. It became clear that from their end they had seemed to understand everything, they had had all the right conversations, and they had gotten the five year lease.
The months of work and planning on Joanna’s end, all for what? They had replaced the furnace, recently built a patio, paid for a portion of the cost to paint the exterior of the building, and still kept up on regular maintenance. As Joanna says, “Why would we invest all of our money, especially after COVID, if we had known this would be a possibility? We would have made very different business decisions.”
Yet the City claims that they knew since 2017 that this was a possibility. Joanna is left wondering why, if the City knew this information, would they include the business name in the plans. If there was something that Joanna or her team missed then they would like to see proof of that from the City. Joanna says, “I know those communications do not exist. I have all of my communications on my end, and at no point did they ever, ever say that we would have to get out.”
She was also informed that the revitalization of the building would last approximately three years and after that time the building would be put into an open tenancy bidding pool. Joanna was told that she could then make a bid herself. This leaves her questioning why, after 40 years of business, was the cafe not just offered to maintain their tenancy at that time? Why do they have to bid on it? She would like answers.
To make matters worse, Joanna accepted government help through COVID financial subsidy programs which now means that she owes the government $60,000 while having an unsure idea of what her business’ future looks like. They’ve also had extra expenses with having COVID protection items for staff and guests. They also bought kitchen equipment from the Barley Mill when it shut down to be prepared for when they would be able to reopen after the second lockdown.
Joanna has since touched base with her legal team, drafted a demand letter discussing their concerns and delivered that to the city. Although she attempted to get the lease signed several times, it never was done, and understands the legality behind that. However she has still kept everything “above board and as fairly as possible.”
The City chose not to respond to Joanna and her grievances. All she was asking at that point was to discuss possible solutions that would benefit both herself and the City. When they were ignored instead, the 1886 Buffalo Cafe took up its social media campaign on March 2, 2021. This included starting a petition and gathering information and viewpoints from the community surrounding this issue. The petition was at just 7,500 signatures after just a week.
Currently Joanna is seeking solutions and does not feel that things were handled properly by the city. With all of the mess that has been caused Joanna is now seeking some sort of compensation for all the trouble of wasted time and funds from this last year. This could come in the form of aiding with some of the costs of moving. (The City has offered one option for the cafe to move to; another building that is planning on being torn down.) She would also like to ask that they be allowed to stay in the building for as long as possible, even if that just means for the summer since that is their busiest time and the money they could earn in that time would go a long way.
They have been looking for other locations as they are more than willing to move, however, what most people don’t realize is that moving to a new building and getting that building up to code could cost upwards of $150,000 that Joanna does have especially after fighting for their livelihood through this pandemic. Also, part of the charm of the café is the building they are in. It will be hard to replace that vibe and preserve the essence of what the community loves the most about the café.
Joanna is still holding out hope that the city will reach out and work with her to solve this problem so that they can maintain a good relationship after the current 40 year one that is currently being tainted.
The café holds a big place in Joanna’s heart as she grew up there after her step dad, and previous owner Blade McNeil, met her mom at the café when she was 6. It’s been a heart space for so many YYC community members. As well as the staff. Most of the employees have been with the café for 15+ years and asking them to find a new job during a pandemic would seriously undermine the loyalty and hard work they have shown in that time.
There’s a museum downstairs that was opened in 1986 in commemoration of the 100 year anniversary of the building. In fact the whole restaurant stands as a beacon of celebration of Calgary history.
“The Building itself is just a lovely piece of history,” says Joanna, who feels that celebrating Calgary history “is a very important thing.’
Joanna took over the café around 8 years ago after her parents retired to Vancouver island. The café is still acting as pension for her family. As soon as the café shuts down her family will lose their financial support.
“We need immediate help now… We need to be able to stay there for the summer and we need help relocating. I don’t think that’s an unfair ask after a 40 year relationship with the city and I don’t see why no one wants to sit down and talk about a solution that's going to work for both sides.”