Business & Real Estate

All or muffin: Voyageur du Temps bets on negotiation, forced to vacate

Voyaguer du Temps
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Cheryl Baldovino, from left, Elaine Yu, Maria Chou and Elli Bosworth note the brown paper covering the windows of Voyageur du Temps Sept. 18 after learning it had shuttered for good shortly after they ate lunch there. The friends said they had noticed the restaurant offered a limited menu during their meal, but they didn’t realize it was closing permanently.

A failed effort to save the community that Rie Rubin had fostered through her Los Altos bakery, Voyageur du Temps, led to an abrupt closing last week.

Rubin had received a 180-day notice to vacate the historical property at 288 First St., she said, but was actively negotiating with the property manager until the day she and her employees were told they had to leave. She was under the impression there may have been a chance of changing the leasing agreement to accommodate her plea to Rita Armstrong, manager of the limited liability company that owns the building.

“We were caught off guard at how fast things turned sour,” Rubin said.

When reached by the Town Crier, Armstrong said it was Rubin’s decision to leave, as Rubin and her husband, Andy, co-founder of Android Inc., were dealing with a personal situation. Part-time Voyageur du Temps employees had told local residents that there were rumors circulating about a major boost in rent for the property, possibly as much as a tenfold increase.

“They had a lease already,” said Armstrong, daughter of Maria’s Antique’s owner Maria Armstrong. “It was her decision to leave and we have to respect it. We do care about the business of Los Altos and remain loyal; it’s not as if we have been absent.”

Rubin noted that her employees were likely giving out false information because most of them work part time and she does not share specific financial details with them. The rent had increased, but she cut costs elsewhere: Her labor force was already minimal and she was not willing to cut their pay – “People need housing, you know,” she said – and she already exercised prudence when it came to where and how she purchased her produce.

To remain afloat, some local residents suggested turning Voyageur du Temps into a bar, putting alcoholic drinks on the menu along with baked goods. Rubin told them she knew Los Altos did not want that – residents have Los Altos Grill if they want a night out.

Last-ditch effort

Rubin asked Armstrong to lower the rent, as it had only increased in previous years. Rubin’s desire was to maintain her cafe, which opened more than four years ago, as a meeting spot for friends who want to enjoy pastries and coffee.

She had hoped to keep Voyageur du Temps open at least until Thanksgiving so that the business could serve warm drinks and specialty bread, like it did last year, to loyal customers.

Ultimately, Rubin said Armstrong asked for $50,000 Sept. 13 to extend the negotiation process and allow Voyageur du Temps to remain in the space, which in previous days served as Los Altos’ train depot. Rubin asked if she could use the deposit she put down to lease the space toward the fee; Armstrong denied the request.

Rubin knew she couldn’t come up with that much money and gave her employees their notice.

Rubin had completely restored the building before opening up her business, as it was “not maintained at all,” she said. And given the nature of a residential downtown, business was flat.

“We had put so much of our money into it already,” Rubin said. “We saved redwood from Moffett Field. We were hoping there would be some forgiveness, but the landlord needed to pay the realtor. ‘Business is business,’ she told us. ‘It is out of my hands.’”

While Armstrong had given Rubin no specific date to vacate, Rubin felt pressure to move out immediately. As of Sept. 18, she was having a hard time keeping the restaurant open due to her employees reasonably needing to find new work.

“It’s been a crazy roller coaster,” Rubin said. “I just want to thank the customers. They have been so warm. We do not want to cause unnecessary (turmoil.)”

Gloria Avila, Rubin’s overseeing manager, nicknamed the business’s “Mother Hen,” handled much of the negotiations. She said she understands that business is business, but that is not the way she was raised.

“I wish the building restoration was considered,” said Avila, who had been with the bakery since three months before its opening in March 2014. “I’m a landlord myself, and it’s a give-and-take system. I told (Armstrong) that I was brought up on kindness and compassion, and she got mad about it. I didn’t mean any offense, we just don’t live in an old-school world anymore.”

Avila said she helped Rubin search for other locations, but rent is high everywhere in the South Bay. According to Avila, Armstrong currently has buyers in a bidding war, and one wanted to keep Voyageur du Temps the way it is, but someone has topped his bid and he has been invited to raise his offer higher and higher.

Avila works with other restaurants, which she has contacted seeking employment for Voyageur du Temps’ bakers and servers. Approximately 50 percent of the staff had found employment by the middle of last week, and others had leads on new jobs.

“We’ve stopped baking,” Avila said. “We have staff that have hung on, but we just need to bite the bullet now.”

Brown butcher paper covered the windows Sept. 18. Women who were regular customers sat outside, mourning the closing. Rubin planned to vacate the building Friday.

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