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Arepa Zone has been a fixture at Union Market ever since the Venezuelan food truck won a Launch Pad competition to take over Chef Ris Lacoste’s stall in 2015. Co-founders Gabriela Febres and Ali Arellano beat out about 50 other businesses and nailed their pitch at a Shark Tank-style event in front of hospitality industry heavy hitters, granting them a one-year lease at the food hall. They’ve gone on to open a brick-and-mortar Arepa Zone on 14th Street NW and have a new business planned for Union Market’s sister concept, La Cosecha.

Yesterday Febres learned that Chef Eric Adjepong would be taking over her stall from an Eater article. The former Top Chef contestant, who is about to compete on Top Chef All-Stars, is opening a Caribbean-style roti shop. 

“The hope is to open in late April and early May,” the Eater announcement reads. “Adjepong expects to spend plenty of time at the Union Market stall, which formerly housed the Arepa Zone counter.”

Arepa Zone isn’t closed. At least not yet. 

“I started shaking,” Febres says. “They’re already announcing this? I’m very happy that it’s a minority, someone of color, I love that. It’s nothing against this new chef at all. It’s not his fault. It’s not about him.” She continues, “We’re not top chefs or anything, but we built Arepa Zone from scratch for our love and passion for our culture.”

A representative for Adjepong says, “All lease discussions were handled between his leasing agent and the landlord. Eric had no contact with the previous tenant.” 

Since opening, Arepa Zone has been granted the opportunity to renew their one-year lease annually. Febres says that renewing leases with EDENS typically takes time and attributes delays to the fact that EDENS has many tenants spread throughout Union Market and the surrounding neighborhood that they almost unilaterally control. 

“This time around I wasn’t worried,” Febres says. “Our lease expired in June 2019. When leases expire, you become a month-to-month tenant until they come around to renewing the lease, then you get another year … There was no reason to believe anything was going on behind the scenes.”

Febres says she didn’t hear from EDENS until November, when leasing associate Danielle Collins reached out to Arepa Zone’s broker, Jane Le, inquiring if the restaurant was still interested in renewing. At this time, Collins also sent over a Letter of Intent for renewing Arepa Zone’s lease, according to Febres. City Paper obtained copies of the LOI, which show there was back and forth about increasing the lease term to more than one year.

Febres says they were planning to sign, but wanted to see if they could negotiate a tenant improvement allowance, a longer rent term, or at least a month of free rent so they would have money to freshen up the look of their stall after five years in business. Febres says they were also discussing how to protect Arepa Zone from another vendor opening a similar concept. 

Collins reached out to Arepa Zone’s broker again in December, according to Febres, this time asking if they could get things wrapped up. Arepa Zone pushed back, trying to keep negotiations going. Then they didn’t hear anything in response, according to Febres. Emails obtained by City Paper show that Febres consistently asked Le for updates from EDENS about the status of the lease. Le responded that she had not heard anything. 

Then on Feb. 20, Febres says she got a call from her broker informing her that EDENS wasn’t planning to renew Arepa Zone’s lease. Febres is searching for a reason why.

“I was trying to grasp what had we done wrong,” she says. “We never missed a rent payment … Everyone loves us there. We did a lot with that tiny space of 150 square feet—$800,000 a year. It’s not for lack of sales.”

Febres says Arepa Zone hired an attorney following the notification that EDENS would not be renewing the lease. EDENS’ attorney responded saying they were preparing a notice to vacate, according to Febres. 

According to emails obtained by City Paper, Arepa Zone’s lawyer requested that EDENS deliver the notice directly to the law office instead of visiting the stall in Union Market. The next day Febres says the notice was delivered to an hourly employee at the stall. “Ultimately it puts all my staff in panic mode,” Febres says. “I cried. My staff deserves so much better.”

The notice obtained by City Paper from BBS&G Attorneys says Arepa Zone needs to be out by March 31.

Febres is most rattled by the timing. She says she believes EDENS waited to see if Arepa Zone would commit more funds to their La Cosecha project before they decided not to renew the lease at Union Market. “In January we took out a loan to finish our construction,” Febres says. “If [EDENS] knew in January, I would have been upset but it would have been better timing.”

Pressed for details about the reason they want Arepa Zone out, the negotiations, and the timing, a representative for EDENS responded to City Paper saying the developer has no comment.

City Paper also reached out to Richie Brandenburg, who Febres says was involved in the earlier stages of negotiations. He was EDENS’ long time director of culinary strategy and is no longer be with the company. According to an episode of the Shift Drink podcast, Brandenburg will be opening a new major project with former ThinkFoodGroup veteran Ruben Garcia

La Cosecha, a 20,000 square-foot Latin marketplace around the corner from Union Market, hasn’t gotten off the ground the way many expected it too. Leading up to its October debut there was a Sept. 7 block party and concert to commemorate the momentous occasion. But when opening day came, few restaurants, bars, or retail shops were operating at full capacity. Five months later, not much has changed and the market is still only open Thursdays through Sundays. Chef Christian Irabién of Amparo Fundita bowed out of the project.

Febres and Arellano are supposed to open Mosaico Street Food + Market inside La Cosecha. But based on what they’ve experienced at Union Market over the past five months, Febres says she has fresh concerns about opening in another EDENS’ property: “What emotionally, financially, do I have left in me to keep investing my time and my money in EDENS? I know I’m an entrepreneur, but I have feelings.”

She says she recognizes that she doesn’t have a legal case to keep her stall in Union Market because it’s EDENS’ purview to shake up the stalls however they see fit. Asked how Febres would like to see this resolved, she says she just doesn’t want to leave Union Market.

“Not like this. If we could stay there forever, we probably would.” She says one more year would help them recoup the money they invested in La Cosecha. A balance sheet Febres shared with City Paper shows they’ve already spent just over $250,000 on construction and equipment. “I wish EDENS could come to their senses and say this is not the way to do business.”