How Many Harvard Businesses Will Go the Way of Crema Cafe?

Photo courtesy of Crema Cafe Instagram (@cremacambridge)

Flat Patties Expects to Close or Move This Year Due to Anticipated Rent Increase

When beloved Harvard Square coffee shop Crema Cafe closed suddenly late last year, the owners didn’t try to hide why the doors were shuttering.

“They are here to make mad cash,” Co-partner Steve “Nookie” Postal wrote in a column for Eater Boston. “No independent could float the numbers they were asking in rent.”

He was referencing Asana Partners, a real estate company based in North Carolina that bought a chunk of properties at the heart of Harvard Square in late 2017. The buildings at 1-8 and 17-41A Brattle St. sold for $108 million, the Boston Globe reports. The acquired properties are home to many popular neighborhood businesses, including Black Ink, Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe, Felipe’s Taqueria, Flat Patties, and, formerly, Crema.

Crema Co-Owner Liza Shirazi and Cambridge Local First Executive Director Adriane Musgrave both note a perceived shift in Asana Partners’ tone compared to when they acquired the properties. At the time, Harvard Square Business Association Executive Director Denise Jillson told the Harvard Crimson that she expected Flat Patties, Crema, and Felipe’s wouldn’t have trouble staying.

When it came time to negotiate a new lease for Crema, however, Shirazi says they faced a hefty rent hike and were told Asana was already in talks with another business to take over the spot.

“It didn’t feel like we were in the driving seat,” Shirazi says. “They must have known, ‘They’re never going to be able to pay this, as an independent business.’ I guess my biggest thing is just honesty. I didn’t feel like everything was communicated to us in the best way, I didn’t feel like we were treated as fairly as we should’ve been, as a current tenant.”

Australian coffee chain Bluestone Lane is set to take over Crema’s space, according to the Harvard Crimson. The swap is particularly problematic, Musgrave argues.

“It’s a one-for-one switch with Crema,” she says. “From our perspective, it’s especially frustrating that a real estate company would kick out a thriving, locally owned and independent business that is loved by all members of the community, from our student population to local residents to visitors and tourists, to bring in a non-local company that, essentially, seems like it’s going to do something very similar. This is an extractive economy that they are pushing, and it’s not good for Cambridge’s future vitality.”

Asana Partners did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment for this article.

Vice Mayor Jan Devereux expressed her concern at Crema’s closure and regarding the prognosis for other independent businesses in the stretch.

“I had a call with a couple of principals of Asana, where I expressed dismay that a very popular business was closing, and my hopes that future negotiations with businesses that have been on that block and have a loyal clientele would be more successful,” she says. “I tried to impress on them that there’s a delicate balance of local versus chain ownership, that people are extremely disturbed at the changes they’re seeing in Harvard Square. It’s got everybody on edge, and I tried to convey that, that it would be in their interest if they could find a way to work with these local businesspeople.”

Some community members communicated their distress on social media and with a petition to “save Crema” that quickly garnered over 3,000 signatures.

Jillson, however, doesn’t point a finger at Asana in response to Crema’s closure.

“It is sometimes assumed that rent is the major and only contributing factor when businesses leave the square or close for good,” she told Scout in an email. “The reality, however, is far more complex … While the closing or the relocation of square favorites leaves some people inconvenienced and sad, others eagerly anticipate a new enterprise. This is the ever-changing nature of a robust business district where, in large part, the consumer decides who stays and who goes.”

The Brattle Street businesses residing in the Asana properties hold leases of many different lengths. Flat Patties and Felipe’s Co-owner Tom Brush says Felipe’s has a strong business model and 15 years left on its lease, so he is not concerned about it operating under Asana’s ownership.

The lease at Flat Patties, however, is up at the end of this year. Brush says that while Flat Patties has a sustainable business model at its current rent, the sales aren’t strong enough to even be “in a place to negotiate” with Asana to be a tenant at the higher rent level.

Brush says the Flat Patties owners would consider moving to a new location, but that it’s more likely they will choose to close the business as the Brattle Street lease ends.

“Sometime in 2019, Flat Patties will be departing Harvard Square,” he says.

Despite having Flat Patties’ closure likely on the horizon, Brush speaks pragmatically about Asana and says the company has been communicative.

“They need to maximize their revenue on their investment,” he says. “I’ve had very open, fair dealings with Asana. It’s not like you like what you hear, but it is what it is.”