Why Megabytes still hasn't reopened
Timeline made by Jacob Wallace
by Emily Martin
Tom Gera, the owner of Megabytes Cafe, pulled out his laptop during an interview with The Rival in the Mudbox, another establishment he owns, and opened up a Google image of a November calendar. He pointed at Nov. 2 and said he has not had access to his restaurant since that day over two months ago.
“The university, without my cooperation, illegally changed the lock on Friday [Nov. 2]. I do not have access to Megabytes,” Gera said. “It’s illegal in D.C. for a landlord to change the lock. My rent is paid on time, there is no rent due. They illegally took over the space from me, so now the case [will be] in the court.”
Gera has owned and operated four dining establishments on campus, including the American Cafe and Asian Flavors, for the past 15 years. However, he said he is now suing the university for breach of contract after he discovered he allegedly was illegally locked out of Megabytes Cafe. Just the day before, a video of rats digging through food in the cafe had circulated on Facebook.
Gera filed the civil actions suit in the D.C. Superior Court on Dec. 6, 2018, asking for his lease to reinforced and for $188,350 in actual, compensatory and punitive damages, in addition to damages from inventory and appliances locked in the store. The suit asks to award any other relief since Gera alleges he lost approximately $1,338,000 in revenue.
The University has a history of not commenting on pending litigation, but Mark Story, university spokesperson, responded with a statement on this suit via email:
“We believe Mr. Gera’s claims are without merit and the University will vigorously defend itself against this lawsuit.”
After waiting nearly two months to regain access to his restaurant, Gera said he has not gained access despite continuing to pay rent, though he said Chuck Smith, the executive director of Auxiliary Services, notified him he would be allowed in if he gave advanced notice via email.
Smith referred The Rival to Story, who said in an email the cafe is currently undergoing renovations, with no timetable for a reopening.
Gera, however, said he was unaware of current renovations.
“As far as I know they haven't even started the repairs and they have not notified me of any progress. It’s already been two months,” Gera said in an email.
According to the lawsuit, Gera, the plaintiff, and the university representatives, the defendant, must meet in an initial conference, moderated by the judge assigned to the case, on the morning of March 15, 2019. A possible settlement will be discussed, as well as an established schedule for the rest of the case proceedings.
“[We] will have our day in court. That’s all,” Gera said in an email.
The day before the restaurant’s locks were changed, Megabytes had passed a D.C. Health Department inspection with six violations and a moderate risk rating. The department's website lists that the violations must be fixed within 14 days, but Gera said in an email he “couldn’t complete the task” after the locks were changed and he won’t be able to until the restaurant opens back up.
The department’s website also states that a food establishment will be shut down if there are critical violations that are an “imminent health hazard,” such as no hot water, fire, vermin infestation, foodborne illness and more. The report of Megabytes Cafe did not include any of these violations. According to the report, the violations were all “good retail practices,” such as labelling food properly, cleaned wiping cloths and properly cleaned utensils. Gera said in an email that the violations had been minor and easily fixable.
Around the end of October, two videos of rats digging through food in Gera’s cafe went viral on Facebook. On Nov. 1, the university issued a statement that said Megabytes would close that night and would not reopen until a “remediation plan” was developed.
Gera said he agreed to the temporary closure and the D.C. Health Department came to do the health inspection that same day, which showed no insects, rodents or animals present.
Despite this report, which Gera said the university was notified of, the university changed the lock on the door on the morning of Nov. 2. Gera said he was told the university would take a week to assess the situation, but within a week, they sent him a report from a pest control company that the restaurant needed to be shutdown. Gera said he and the university have both employed the pest control company in the past.
“They just sent us one email that said, ‘according to the pest control company, there are a lot of issues and it’ll take a long time, let’s meet to discuss who’s going to pay,” Gera said. “I was begging them to fix the problem this summer. … Pest control came to me for the last four years, inspecting my shop every month. They did not find anything wrong. After this incident, they have a huge report that so many things are wrong.”
Gera said he saw the pest control report but still does not understand why Megabytes cannot be opened if the health department passed him.
According to the lawsuit, Gera’s lease had required him to use the same pest control company the university used, but on “numerous occasions,” he had reported problems with no response from the university or the company. Gera also alleged in the lawsuit that representatives for the university offered to buy him out of his lease rather than solve the pest problem. Gera corroborated this in an interview with The Rival and said the representative was Auxiliary Services Director Chuck Smith.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleged that Gera tried to coordinate treatment with the pest control company separately, but the company informed him that they could not engage in treatment without approval from the university. He contacted them around Oct. 24 regarding the rat problem but received no response.
Anna Kim, the manager of Megabytes Cafe, said that she was under the impression that the university would fix the rat problem during the winter break and then re-open the restaurant for the spring semester. Kim said she was recently sick so she currently is not working another job and visits campus once a week to check on the status of Megabytes Cafe.
“We don’t know, basically, what’s next. Maybe next month, maybe another two months or next semester,” Kim said. “We were very happy to work there with all the students. There is nothing to do now every day. Emptiness. Depression.”
Gera and Kim said they are concerned about the impact the closure will have on the staff they manage. Kim said she has received several phone calls from employees of the cafe asking when the restaurant would reopen and expressing concern about their jobs.
“Of course, it’s not only me, like one of the employees from Megabytes just said, ‘What’s going on? When is it going to be reopened again?’” Kim said. “Because we need our jobs, right, and we need our money.”
Gera said he had to lay off four new hires and rotate employees to other locations, and he has suffered “tens of thousands” of dollars in damages due to lost business and spoiled food. Gera said he had kept food in the restaurant the night of Nov. 1 because he was planning on opening the next day, and Kim confirmed the lock change was a surprise.
“The longer we are closed, we are losing students who had a habit everyday, they came to eat a bagel with cream cheese at my shop,” Gera said. “Now they are going to Starbucks or any other place. So even when I open, I know it’s not a recoverable damage — I am going to suffer for at least six months to a year.”
Gera alleged that the university, particularly Smith, does not want small businesses on campus and referred to The Rival's report on a hair salon being pushed off campus in 2014 after 15 years.
According to the lawsuit, Gera believes the AU Dining office’s decision to not allow Dining Dollar purchases at his cafes contributed to the his sense that representatives “had made it clear that there were plans for the property that no longer included” Gera. The Rival had previously reported about the university’s decision to redefine Dining Dollars as currency only accepted by “on-campus dining,” or Aramark-operated dining options.
Gera included in the lawsuit that the university had not provided a “rational or logical justification” when asked about the new Dining Dollars restriction.
Despite the headache the closure has caused Gera, he remains optimistic and plans to reopen Megabytes Cafe after the lawsuit is settled. Gera hopes he will make up the financial losses from the closure through his a strong connection with the student body. Gera said some students have approached employees at his other restaurants to ask about Megabytes Cafe. One student, Allison Hernandez, even started a petition to reopen the cafe, which acquired nearly 500 signatures.
“I just look at every day as a new day,” Gera said. “I have great relationships with students, faculty and staff. Because of one or two bad apples, I’m not making any judgement against the university.”