Landlord seeks $167,000 from Naples Tomato for unpaid rent, damages

Naples Tomato closed April 28 after operating for eight years off U.S. 41 in North Naples.

Photo by JENNA BUZZACCO-FOERSTER

Naples Tomato closed April 28 after operating for eight years off U.S. 41 in North Naples.

A rotten split between Naples Tomato and its former landlord has landed in court.

CS Tamiami LLC, which owns the North Naples building once home to the popular Italian restaurant, is suing its former tenant for $167,000 in unpaid rent, as well as damages caused when owners took furniture and equipment from the premises.

"It seems a little beyond what you consider reasonable damage for a restaurant moving out," CS Tamiami LLC general counsel John M. Morgan said. "I think our biggest concern was the amount of damage they did, and that it's going to impede our ability to put another tenant back in there, which is important."

Edmond Koester, a lawyer for Naples Tomato owner Jack Serfass, said the restaurant's lease allowed for Serfass to remove most items from the site upon leaving in late April. The landlord alleges Naples Tomato wrongfully took grills, ranges, refrigerators, built-in tables and more.

"They were owned by Naples Tomato and they had the right to take them out," Koester said of the items. "Naples Tomato left extraordinarily valuable assets with the landlord to compensate the landlord. We're surprised, given the clarity of the lease, that this is an issue."

The landlord says Naples Tomato representatives trashed the site while removing equipment, leaving electric wiring and gas lines exposed and trash strewn across the restaurant. The lawsuit doesn't list a dollar value on the items removed, but Morgan estimated it at "well in excess of $200,000."

Morgan said CS Tamiami, which took over the building in late March, never wanted to evict Naples Tomato.

"It's not so much that they left, which was uncalled for and a breach of their lease," Morgan said. "It's the way they left and what they did to that property."

Koester said Naples Tomato doesn't owe any back rent because it had an agreement with the previous owner and Wells Fargo, which took over the foreclosed property, to operate for free while working on a new lease arrangement.

"It's not uncommon for landlords to make deals like that to keep those tenants," he said.

When CS Tamiami bought the property, it refused to continue the agreement, Koester said. Morgan responded that CS Tamiami was handed a ledger from Wells Fargo showing the back rent.

Koester criticized CS Tamiami for going after Serfass after the restaurant went belly-up following eight years in business.

"To sue them anyway when you know you don't have any opportunity to collect because they don't have any assets left, that's spite litigation," Koester said.

Morgan said Naples Tomato brought the lawsuit on itself.

"While they want to be the small entrepreneurs tromped on by the big company, I'm sorry, you stepped across the line and acted badly," Morgan said. "If they'd asked us if there was a professional way to exit this, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

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