×

Jim Kenyon: Digging into the demise of Hanover’s only Chinese restaurant

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, April 13, 2019

Since taking over the Orient restaurant in downtown Hanover in 2015, Tony Chou and Fen Li worked 364 days a year. The couple’s only day off was Thanksgiving.

When their teenage sons, Jason, 16, and Kevin, 14, weren’t in school or playing sports, they always seemed to be at the restaurant as well. If not bagging takeout orders or refilling diners’ water glasses, the boys could be found sitting at an empty table doing homework.

“We work very hard to make a good living and try to satisfy all our customers,” Li told me.

But the immigrant couple and their two sons have learned that hard work doesn’t always pay off.

Two weeks ago, Chou and Li were forced to close their restaurant in the basement of Hanover Park. In an eviction case that’s been going on for two years, Hanover Park’s owners, Jim and Susan Rubens, of Etna, finally won out.

I’m not sure it was much of a victory.

The shuttering of Hanover’s only Chinese restaurant has left the Rubenses shopping for a new tenant and a downtown struggling to remain relevant in the age of online shopping with yet another vacant commercial space.

It pales, however, to the uncertain future that Chou and Li now face. “We must find work,” Li said.

Why does a couple who’ve fed Upper Valley customers and Dartmouth students for years suddenly have to worry about putting food on their own table?

To try to make sense of it all, I sifted through court and town records. Here’s what I found.

In June 2017, the Rubenses — through their limited liability company, Crotix — began eviction proceedings against the Orient in Lebanon District Court, alleging that Chou and Li had failed to pay rent.

But that’s a bit deceiving.

Chou and Li had paid their rent of nearly $10,000 a month on time since they took over the restaurant’s lease from prior tenants in January 2015, their attorney, David Cole, of Hanover, said in court documents. The couple also had given the Rubenses a $20,000 security deposit.

But the Rubenses argued the lease agreement, which ran to June 2025, entitled them to “additional rent” to cover capital repairs to the restaurant. The eviction notice claimed that Chou and Li owed $68,637 for repairs and renovations to the property. The bill included $15,000 for the Rubenses’ own labor in helping with the repairs. (For those who don’t follow New Hampshire politics, Jim Rubens is an ex-state senator and -Republican gubernatorial candidate.)

In January, Lebanon District Court Judge Henrietta Luneau ruled that under the terms of the lease agreement, the Rubenses had the right to evict Chou and Li for nonpayment of additional rent.

But here’s the rub:

For Chou and Li, English is a second language. (During the eviction case’s court proceedings, an interpreter who speaks Mandarin was brought in to translate questions for them.)

Chou, 52, came to the U.S. from Taiwan in the early 1990s. His parents opened a Chinese restaurant near New Haven. Conn. Li, 44, moved by herself to the U.S. from China a few years later. Her first job was working in a New York nail salon.

Friends introduced them. “His mom taught me to cook,” Li said.

Chou and Li followed members of his family to Hanover — a college town they figured could use a good Chinese restaurant. In 2005, Chou’s family opened the Orient in Hanover Park, a two-story commercial building that the Rubenses opened in the early 1990s.

Chou started out as the Orient’s deliveryman, and Li worked as a cook. Both became U.S. citizens. By 2015, they had saved up enough money to buy the restaurant and sign a lease with the Rubenses. A New York attorney reviewed the agreement, but didn’t give any advice, Li testified during the eviction proceedings.

“In this particular case, the lease contained terms that were more favorable to (the) landlord than to (the) tenant,” Luneau, the judge, wrote in her decision, though she ultimately acknowledged the lease’s legality.

After receiving the eviction notice, Li approached attorney Cole while he was having lunch at the restaurant. Chou and Li were “unaware of many overreaching aspects of the lease,” Cole wrote the court last October. He cited the lease’s requirement that they “replace all of the carpet in the restaurant and completely refurbish, repaint, and change all the restaurant’s furniture every five years, beginning in 2017.”

The work was needed to get the place “up to par,” Jim Rubens told me last week.

Chou and Li agreed to pay for some of the work, including $8,000 for new carpeting and $3,600 for plumbing repairs in the kitchen.

But they shouldn’t have to pay for other capital repairs in the 25-year-old building, Cole argued. The big expense involved the Orient kitchen’s underground drainage system. Restaurant kitchens require so-called grease traps that are designed to catch greases and solids before they enter wastewater pipes leading to municipal sewer systems.

Rubens told me that he warned the new owners that he didn’t know the condition of the underground pipes in the basement, a space that had been used as a restaurant since the the building opened.

In her decision, Luneau wrote that she found Li’s testimony “credible” that she did “not know about the failing condition of the wastewater (pipes) and grease trap” when she and her husband signed the lease.

In the spring of 2017, the Rubenses went ahead with the costly underground work, using some of Chou’s and Li’s $20,000 security deposit to help pay for it. The restaurant closed for about three weeks during the construction, but Chou and Li continued to pay rent.

Rubens told me he spent days, with help from his wife and son, digging under the concrete floor to get to the wastewater pipes that were clogged with grease. (That accounted for much of the $15,000 in labor charges billed to Chou and Li.)

I don’t know much about the restaurant business, but a lease that requires tenants to pay for everything from new wallpaper to supplies for a public restroom outside the restaurant seems a tad onerous.

The lease is “market-based and detailed, setting forth requirements applicable for a food service business,” the Rubenses’ attorney, Barry Schuster, of Lebanon, wrote to the court in November. “The nature of a restaurant operation imposes greater wear and tear on a commercial rental space than might an office or retail store.”

Jim Rubens says I’ve got it all wrong. The eviction is “not about money,” he said when we talked on Thursday. “It’s about public health and safety.”

The 2017 eviction notice alleges the Orient’s owners failed to “comply with sanitation requirements” that were part of the lease. Rubens and his wife hold their tenants to high standards of cleanliness because the state does such a poor job of it, he said. The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ restaurant inspections, which are public record, are too infrequent and its enforcement of food safety regulations is too lax, he said.

The Orient’s most recent state inspection came in late 2016. In November of that year, a state inspector observed employees “not using proper hand washing techniques” and some foods weren’t being stored at proper temperatures. Follow-up inspections over the next six weeks found the restaurant had corrected the problems.

Hanover employs a part-time food safety inspector to supplement the state’s efforts. In July 2015 — six months after Chou and Li took over — the town notified Jim Rubens that its inspector had found a “number of deficiencies” in the restaurant. “The kitchen is in very poor condition and needs a very heavy cleaning,” Town Manager Julia Griffin wrote in an email to Rubens.

Conditions later improved. In July 2017, town inspector Gary Quackenbush wrote “the general sanitation of this facility was found to be quite good today.” After his most recent visit last July, Quackenbush wrote “this is one of the best inspections of this restaurant. General sanitation good.”

It would be unfair to blame the Rubenses for all the troubles that led to the Orient’s demise. Town officials also played a part.

After The Dartmouth, the college’s daily student newspaper, wrote about the restaurant’s closure, Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin emailed Mark Roper, whose job at the town’s water reclamation facility puts him in regular contact with downtown food establishments. “It was our pressure that finally led Jim Rubens and Susan (Rubens) to initiate eviction actions,” Griffin told him.

Last week, I sat down with Griffin to find out why the town would view the Orient’s closing as almost a cause for celebration.

She gave me a brief history lesson:

For years, restaurants around Lebanon Street have dumped kitchen grease in a holding tank behind the Six South St. Hotel that an outside contractor hauls away.

In 2015, the town discovered large splotches of grease in the alley between Hanover Park and 7 Lebanon St., a building owned by Dartmouth. The town suspected a restaurant in that vicinity was illegally dumping grease into a stormwater catch basin drain in the alley.

The town met with restaurant owners and managers to get to the bottom of the mess. Nobody fessed up. To help the town catch the culprit, Six South St. Hotel offered to place a surveillance camera at the back of its four-story building.

In September 2015, Mark Roper wrote to Chou: “Based on video from the installed cameras and what witnesses have reported it is clear that your kitchen staff has been responsible for at least some of the grease being dumped into the storm drain.”

I’m not sure how the town figured out it was the Orient’s kitchen staff. When I asked Li about the grease spillage, she said, “We don’t know who did it.”

The day after The Dartmouth published its story about the Orient’s closing, Roper, the town’s industrial pretreatment coordinator, emailed Griffin. She was quoted in the story as saying the restaurant’s management had been “untruthful” about the grease dumping, which was caught on video.

In his April 5 email to Griffin, Roper asked, “Have there been recent instances of them dumping grease in storm drains? I wasn’t aware this was still happening and I keep a pretty close eye with what goes on over there. If something legitimate has happened in the last two years I haven’t heard about it.”

After reading the judge’s comment about English being a second language for Chou and Li, I asked Rubens whether I was off base to think he might have taken advantage of the couple during lease negotiations.

“We bent over backwards to help them,” he said, including cutting the rent by 10 percent from what the previous Orient owners had paid.

In an agreement reached April 1, the Rubenses said they won’t try to collect anything more from Chou and Li, including the state’s $1,500 maximum in eviction cases.

“We recognized this was an unpleasant situation,” Rubens told me. “We wanted to make it so people could move on. I think we did that.”

On Wednesday evening, I stopped by the small cinder block house on Route 5 in Norwich that Chou and Li bought 10 years ago. A basketball hoop was stationed in the driveway. When I knocked on the door, the family invited me to sit at their kitchen table.

Chou pulled out a folder that included the Orient’s 2018 food safety inspection. They were proud of the progress they had made on that front.

I mentioned that during my times eating at the restaurant, I had admired how much their sons pitched in. “They are very good,” Li said with a smile. “Sometimes, they complain, ‘My friends are going out, but I can’t.’ They understand.”

The boys are active in sports, but Jason has been on the sidelines since he tore his ACL in a Hanover High football game last fall and required surgery.

“I’m very glad I moved to this town,” Li said. “People always help. They know my husband and I are always working. They take our boys to games and practices.”

I asked if they wanted to open another restaurant in the Upper Valley.

“Hard question,” Li said. “We have to find a place that’s good for our family.

“We try our best.”

I hope next time their best is good enough.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.