Venerable slice joint Caesar's Palace Pizza will shut its doors permanently this week after 36 years on the Upper West Side, thanks to the arrival of a new management company that, according to owner Dimitri Vezrakis, sought to deliberately drive the store out of business.
Vezrakis told Gothamist that he was shocked after learning in late May that Vifast Realty, the company that took over his lease last year, planned to nearly double his rent and hike his late fee payments by more than 1,000 percent. He said that he'd been asking the management company to see the new lease for the better part of a year, but was only given a copy three weeks before his current lease expired. (Vifast Realty did not return a request for comment).
"When I opened the envelope I was heartbroken," Vezrakis recalled. "He said, 'Take it or leave it, it's time for us to make up our losses.' I was devastated emotionally, because this is not the way I planned to leave things."
However, the neighborhood pizza parlor will not be going down quietly. At 11 a.m. on Monday, Caesar's-supporters and other community advocates plan to stage a press conference at the Amsterdam and 84th Street storefront, where they'll call on the city to improve its policies protecting small businesses. The presser was organized by Mel Wymore, a City Council hopeful and former chair and current member of Community Board 7, which covers the Upper West Side.
"Our community is no longer welcoming to essential businesses like Caesar's, the kinds of businesses that weave our community together," Wymore told Gothamist. "Let's be clear about this: when community institutions like Caesar's die, it's not an accident or an unavoidable tragedy, it's a result of deliberate choices by our politicians to protect a system that favors big landlords over everyone else."
In June, Wymore called on the City Council to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which would create a program aimed at helping small businesses navigate the commercial lease renewal process. Wymore has also called for a temporary moratorium on evictions of small business and for landlords to be fined if they leave storefronts vacant for years.
According to a recent report released by the Manhattan Borough President's Office, more empty storefronts plague uptown than any other part of the city, and landlords are increasingly breaking long-held leases in search of higher-paying tenants.
That's something that Vezrakis witnessed firsthand, even before he was forced to shutter his business. "Within a five block radius [of Caesar's], I'm not kidding you it's like maybe 20 stores vacant, and they're all mom and pop shops who had their rent doubled or tripled," he said.
While Vezrakis has left open the possibility of reopening Caesar's Palace Pizza at a different location, he says that it's too late to hope for a solution at the current storefront. Still, he's glad that the press conference is happening. "It's for the future of the people who are still in business, so in my heart I feel like it's worth it to do this, because my best revenge would be to see someone succeed and not to lose their business because of a corporation."
"And to be honest, I never knew how much I was loved by my customers," Vezrakis added. "I had hundreds of customers hugging and kissing me. One good thing I'm going to take from this is the love of the people in the neighborhood I've served for so many years."