En Boca (photo: Brian Samuels for En Boca)

Restauranteur Sarmanian Sues Harvard over Nearby Construction


By Max Stendahl

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (bizjournals.com) – When Peter Sarmanian signed a lease in early 2016 for a new restaurant in Harvard Square, he had high hopes for the venture. His company, Classic Restaurant Concepts, already owned two successful pubs. The upscale tapas joint on Holyoke St., located less than a block from Harvard University’s campus, promised to draw heavy foot traffic.

But despite positive early reviews, the restaurant, called En Boca, generated minimal sales. Sarmanian and his co-owners knew why: A massive construction project to renovate Harvard’s nearby Smith Campus Center had closed Holyoke street and made it an eyesore. Amid significant losses, En Boca closed its doors last June, just nine months after opening.

According to Sarmanian, it wasn’t merely a case of bad timing. Classic Restaurant Concepts has since filed a fraud lawsuit in Middlesex County Superior Court, accusing Harvard of lying about the extent of the construction project even as it was encouraging the company to sign the lease at 8 Holyoke St. The suit, which was filed in August, claims that the university knew the street would be closed for two years, but failed to inform the restaurant. (Harvard has denied wrongdoing.)

“I’ve been in the restaurant business since my early 20s, and I’ve never heard of anything like this happening,” Sarmanian said in an interview. He described the construction, with the sound of jackhammers and swirling dust and grime, as “a war zone.”

Shortly after Classic Restaurant Concepts signed the lease, Harvard and its construction company filed a permit with the city of Cambridge, seeking permission to close the sidewalk and bar vehicle traffic during business hours until August 2018, according to the suit. Meanwhile, Harvard was allegedly telling the restaurant that the street would reopen as early as August 2016.

Sarmanian said that Classic Restaurant Concepts would never have spent $2.6 million renovating the space had it known the truth. He noted that other nearby retailers, including the soon-to-be-sold Andover Shop, made similar complaints about the construction to the Boston Globe in a recent report.

Harvard has denied fault. It also filed a counterclaim against Classic Restaurant Concepts, alleging that En Boca’s owners failed to make required rent payments and breached the terms of the lease by closing down.

In a statement, the university said it could not comment on specific, ongoing litigation, but noted that the Smith Center project “went through a significant public approval process, including more than 30 public meetings.”

“Since then, Harvard’s construction mitigation office has worked closely with all abutting businesses and residents to help minimize any disruptions to the extent possible,” the university said. “The project has always been scheduled to continue through the fall of 2018 and the expected completion date was heavily advertised.”

Sarmanian acknowledged that En Boca did not pay rent, but said it was because the restaurant was losing up to $100,000 per month due to the street closing and construction. (Classic Restaurant Concepts’ lawsuit asks a judge to rule that it doesn’t owe Harvard any lease payments.) Eventually, Sarmanian said, the losses became so steep that he was forced to sell his own house.

“They thumbed their nose at us,” Sarmanian said of Harvard. “They literally said that it was not their problem. What they did was a fraudulent act.”

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