Fryer in the Hole Is the Union Station food court muscling out small restaurants?

Chicken, Out: The Kims may be just the first food-court tenant to be run out on a rail at Union Station.
Charles Steck

The Amtrak employee waiting in line at Wingmaster’s Grill, the chicken outlet tucked into an increasingly neglected nook at Union Station, says that railroad employees up and down the Eastern Seaboard know about the modest steam-table operation on the lower-level food court. “If a train’s got a layover,” says conductor Dennis Eichler, “we may have 30 different places in the mall [to choose from], but we go to Wingmaster’s.”

The house-made sauces, marinades, and batters are part of the attraction, but Eichler singles out the person behind them: cook and co-owner Chong Kook Kim, who at age 57 still possesses the charm and energy of a nervous teenager. “She always smiles at you,” Eichler says. Fellow devotee David Wall can relate. The IT specialist has been eating at Wingmaster’s long enough to watch Kim navigate through the good times and bad at Union Station. Through it all, Wall says, one thing has remained constant: “This woman cares about her customers.”

Kim’s generosity—a free plate for a homeless man, an extra chicken leg for a regular—has not exactly been rewarded by Union Station’s new landlords. In February, New Yorknbased Ashkenazy Acquisition Corporation acquired the leasehold interest in Union Station for $160 million; the company wasted little time exercising its newfound control over the 213,000 square feet of retail space inside. On Feb. 28, Ashkenazy’s attorneys sent Kim and her husband, Jong Kwon Kim, a letter saying that Wingmaster’s failure to remodel constitutes a default of its lease.

On July 12, the lawyers sent Wingmaster’s another letter. It gave them until the end of the month to vacate.

The landlord’s case appears to be airtight. The Kims signed a lease in September 2005 that stipulated they must renovate their approximately 500-square-foot space to the tune of $300,000. The Kims acknowledge that they signed the lease fully understanding the need to renovate.

But they also thought their status as a food-court institution might count for something. The Kims have been serving up wings and things for 18 years in Union Station. They have kept their heads down—and their opinions about problems to themselves. They say they have faithfully paid their rent—and the many ancillary charges—every month. Their invoices regularly hit $16,000, $17,000, or $18,000 a month. Their June 2007 invoice, which the Kims showed me, ran $19,585. Approximately $7,500 went to rent; the rest was for utilities, “convenience” charges, and “common area maintenance” fees, which topped $6,000 alone.

The Kims, Korean immigrants who had already shuttered two other Wingmaster’s outlets, say they never questioned any of the fees during their many years in the food court. It wasn’t their style.

Ashkenazy’s treatment of Wingmaster’s must also be viewed in light of other developments at the food court since the new boss entered the picture. Several businesses in the cavernous, subterranean space say that Jones Lang LaSalle (JLLS), which manages Union Station for Ashkenazy, has not offered them new long-term leases. Gourmet Station, Great Wraps, Vittorio’s Gelato Bar, and others are all operating on a month-to-month basis; a manager for Vittorio’s says that JLLS refused to negotiate a new, long-term lease because the gelato bar didn’t mail in its written renewal request six months ahead of time, as mandated.

Then there’s the situation at Mamma Ilardo’s Pizzeria. Like many veteran food-court tenants, the pizzeria has been ordered to remodel. The pizzeria hired one architect, whose plans, a manager says, were rejected by JLLS. So it hired another architect—and got the same result. Mamma Ilardo’s has now hired a hotshot architect, at twice the price of the previous ones, and is waiting for the next round of plans. “If they reject this architect, then we’ll know something’s up,” the manager says.

To date, the pizzeria has spent about $20,000 on architect fees alone; the renovations are expected to cost at least $300,000—if they happen at all. “My fear is that they’re trying to create new tenants,” says the Mamma Ilardo’s manager.

“We were in the process of signing a new lease,” says the owner of another food-court eatery. “We knew that we needed to renovate, and we were ready to do that, but they stopped the lease [negotiations]. Without any explanation, [JLLS] said that the new owner is holding off the renewal of all the leases because they’re reevaluating the food court.”

Now that they’re counting down their final days, the Kims have dropped their reticence; they want to share their frustrations of running a restaurant in Union Station’s food court. The Kims are unique in their willingness to talk on the record; every one of the current owners and managers I spoke with requested anonymity.

The main theme of the Kims’ story is the increasing difficulty of trying to make ends meet in the food court. The high rents and fees were just two pressure points. Others were less predictable or more insidious: the precipitous decline of tourism after 9/11; the rise of new competitors on the main floor of Union Station, including McDonald’s and Au Bon Pain; the general neglect and dinginess of their section of the food court; and the steep drop-off of patrons visiting the nearby movie theaters, which often funnel filmgoers right by Wingmaster’s at the end of the flick.

The Kims have been at Union Station long enough to know the economic tides—flowing in the summer, ebbing in the winter—and they could always budget for the dry times. They’d rack up credit card debt in the winter to help buy ingredients and supplies, then pay off the bills in the busy summer months. This year, the seasonal boom never came. The couple showed me their recent credit card bills, which total more than $50,000.

With no Wingmaster’s—and no income—the Kims have no idea how they will pay off the cards. They also have no way to pay the mortgage on their downtown condo, which they bought two years ago as their dream home. The Kims are looking to rent it out until the real-estate market rebounds; they’ve already moved to Fairfax to live with their son, Thomas.

If you ask the Kims why they ever wanted to stay at Union Station given all the limitations, they will echo David Walls’ comment above. They will tell you that they could never leave their regular customers—their friends, really—behind. This was their place, for better or for worse.

If you ask the folks at Jones Lang LaSalle why the New York landlord decided to kick out a loyal food-court tenant, all you’ll hear in response is the quiet purr of the air-conditioner in the management company’s pristine office at Union Station. No one there would talk to me about the situation in person or respond to my many phone calls. But a clue to the company’s future plans could be hiding in a press release that Ashkenazy issued when it bought the leasehold. Noted CEO Ben Ashkenazy: “We purchased the world-renowned property…and we see an opportunity to create long-term value by upgrading the tenant mix.”

The upgrading appears to have started—with the departure of Wingmaster’s.

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