From friends to enemies as landlord-tenant dispute takes ugly turn at Orient business
There was a time when Claudia Lin and Vincent Bertault considered Joan Turtorro and Howard Leshaw friends. The feeling was mutual.
When the two Orient couples first met about a decade ago, Ms. Lin and her partner Mr. Bertault were offered a warm space to stay for several winters at their friends’ former inn on Main Road in the hamlet.
And when they had a storefront open up at a building they own on Village Lane, Ms. Turtorro and her husband Mr. Leshaw rented it to the other couple.
Opties and Dinghies opened its doors around Fourth of July 2019 to positive press and a steady flow of customers.
Its menu tells a story of the people involved. Historically home to an ice cream shop, it was important to Mr. Leshaw that his friends-turned-tenants continue to serve ice cream there, and so they offer a lineup with 24 flavors of gelato and sorbet. It’s even written into a lease agreement with Mr. Bertault that the space is to be used as an ice cream shop, as well as a retail creperie and patisserie, the latter a nod to the tenant’s French heritage.
The remainder of the menu is an homage to Ms. Lin’s roots. Born in China, the Brooklyn-raised Ms. Lin serves dumplings, scallion pancakes, spring rolls, noodles and Asian-influenced vegetarian dishes.
The eclectic menu, which Ms. Lin describes as a “cartoon of funny mixes of snacks,” helped Opties and Dinghies find a quick following.
But just as quickly the business and property owners began to have a falling out. The landlord-tenant dispute, which has resulted in ongoing litigation of more than 18 months, includes a range of accusations from disputes over the terms of the lease to a police report alleging physical assault and allegations of racism.
In a hamlet connected to the rest of the world by just a thin stretch of causeway, the rift has rippled through the community, as the possibility that both sides come to a long-term resolution of their conflict dissipates.
In an interview about the situation last year, part-time Orient resident Jimena Faerber, a friend and supporter of Ms. Lin and Mr. Bertault, said it’s unfortunate in a “happy place” like Orient. In December 2019 she put a call out to the community to let the landlords know how appreciated Opties and Dinghies is.
“We think that showing the owners of the space how much love and support Vincent and Claudia have from our community could increase the chances that we will continue to enjoy dumplings, crepes and their great company,” Ms. Faerber wrote in an email to neighbors.
The call to action was precipitated by a notice of default from an attorney for the landlords to Mr. Bertault, saying he had breached the terms of the five-year lease he had signed. The letter accused him of failing to pay a security deposit, paying less than the full amount owed on rent and utilities, and for “operating outside of the scope of your agreed upon usage.”
“You are offering services and products that are well outside of a creperie, patisserie and ice cream shop,” reads the letter from Michael Solomon, attorney for Jotas Corporation, the company registered to Ms. Turtorro.
The letter gave the couple 10 days to resolve each of the claims.
In response, Eric Bressler, an attorney for Mr. Bertault, filed for what is known as a Yellowstone injunction, which gives a tenant additional time to address the defaults while also challenging their legitimacy.
The injunction, which was granted by Judge Elizabeth Emerson in March 2020, has enabled the seasonal business to reopen each of the past two summers. But the possibility of a long-term reconciliation beyond the current lease has passed.
“It would be very unlikely that we would continue with them under any circumstances,” Mr. Leshaw said in an interview at the house he and his wife rent on Village Lane, just a short distance from their commercial property.
“I can’t believe there’s any way this rift can be satisfied,” Ms. Turtorro added.
For Opties and Dinghies, which is open from May to December, that means a best case scenario of two more seasons beyond this current year.
“This is our home and we’re being pushed from it,” Ms. Lin said. She remains determined to not leave for another location before the lease expires in 2023.
Ms. Lin said the issues with Ms. Turtorro and Mr. Leshaw began within about six weeks of opening the business. It started, from her perspective, with a dispute over repairs to the septic system on the property, which also includes a seasonal rental apartment and the Orient Post Office.
It was apparent early on that the septic system would need to be replaced, Ms. Lin said. On four occasions last summer they had the septic system pumped out at a cost of nearly $3,000, court records show. In total, they say they have spent about $60,000 in improvements to the property.
The landlords point to a rider attached to the lease that states the tenant is solely responsible for all expenses related to repairs made at the premises.
Mr. Leshaw said his earliest concerns over the business relationship came when Ms. Turtorro received a letter from PSEG Long Island in September 2019, about 10 weeks after Opties and Dinghies opened, stating that electric usage at the property had skyrocketed. A copy of the letter, which was provided to The Suffolk Times, says that due to two consecutive months of increased usage the utility would be raising the rate at the property. He said around the same time the tenant stopped paying its share of the electric bills, as is required under the lease. When asked about their failure to pay the electric, Ms. Lin said the landlords have not provided a breakdown showing how the usage increased upon their arrival.
Ms. Turtorro and Mr. Leshaw said with the electric costs alone they are losing money on the deal with Opties and Dinghies, which pays $11,100 annually to lease the storefront and basement space. Mr. Leshaw said that while the tenants pay them $1,000 a month for nine months out of the year and $700 in winter, they’re paying as much as $1,200 to $1,300 a month in electric as landlords due to increased rates and usage from their tenant.
“We’re not losing money from the rent per se,” Ms. Turtorro said. “We’re losing money from all the cost because the infrastructure is not there for a restaurant.”
Mr. Leshaw said the central issue for him is not economic, but rather how the building is being used, which he said is in violation of town and county health department code. He believes that the type of food being cooked in the building, in particular the Chinese portion of the menu, and the increased electric usage, which he said includes added freezers and refrigerators run off extension cords, is a fire hazard in an old wooden structure with no grease trap.
“[Mr. Bertault] got his license from the [Suffolk County Department] of Health based on a menu that was fraudulent,” Mr. Leshaw said, alleging that the county was not made aware of all the offerings. “I said, ‘Go tell them what you’re cooking. And you got to get the grease trap.’”
He also said he believes the tenants are pouring grease into the septic system, a charge they deny.
Ms. Turturro provided The Suffolk Times with a January 2020 email from town fire marshal James Easton stating that the business owners had been notified of five deficiencies found during an inspection of the building after it had closed for its first season. The letter states that they have time to remedy the issues before reopening and a second letter, provided by Ms. Lin, shows that upon a second inspection eight months later, all matters had been resolved.
“In my eyes, she’s a snake. She slithers away.”Joan Turturro on Claudia Lin
The issues outlined by the fire marshal did include an improper use of extension cords and suggested that the business did not have smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors on both floors. The restaurant also received five health code violations from the Suffolk County Department of Health, but that was during an initial inspection as it was opening in July 2019, county records show.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said there are no outstanding town code violations related to the business.
“Each side has been filing complaints against each other for a variety of perceived violations,” Mr. Russell wrote in an emailed response to several questions. “Code enforcement has been working with both sides to clean matters up.”
The tension between the two parties has come to a head since the business reopened for its third season last month. A Southold Town police report shows two officers responded to a dispute at the property on the evening of May 3, after both Mr. Bertault and Ms. Turturro called with a complaint.
Ms. Turturro said Mr. Bertault was unloading a work van in the rear of the building, in violation of the lease agreement. She said that when she confronted him about it, he “shoved” her.
In the police report, Officers Gregory Sanders and John Helf Jr. said that after interviewing witnesses and viewing photos taken by Ms. Turtorro it was determined that Mr. Bertault had not shoved her, but rather that she blocked his pathway during the heated confrontation.
An audio tape of the incident, recorded by Ms. Lin and shared with The Suffolk Times, features Ms. Turturro directing what Ms. Lin says was an ethnic slur at her, as she repeatedly refers to her as “the snake,” during the exchange.
“It must be the Year of the Snake, huh hon?” she can be heard asking Ms. Lin, a reference to a once-every-12-year occurrence in the Chinese calendar not scheduled to take place again until 2025.
Asked in the interview if she had regrets about her choice of words, Ms. Turtorro said “no.”
“Because she’s a snake,” she said. “In my eyes, she’s a snake. She slithers away. She causes trouble and she slithers away.”
Ms. Turtorro took exception to the comment being described as racially charged or being labeled a racist.
“You know how many Chinese New Years we spent with them?” she asked a reporter.
In response, Mr. Leshaw shared with The Suffolk Times video of a heated exchange Mr. Bertault had with an electrician the landlords brought to do work at the business. Ms. Lin said the work her landlords want to have done to the property is often scheduled during business hours, even as the storefront is vacant for four months out of each year.
Ms. Lin said from her perspective the racism extends beyond that audio recording she made of the May 3 incident. She believes the concerns over the menu are specific to the ethnicity of the food and fueled by a small portion of the Orient community who believe Chinese food should not be offered on Village Lane.
Mr. Leshaw said that’s an unfair accusation.
“The reality is, if it were kosher food or pizza, or enchiladas, it’s the same deal,” he said. “You can’t cook in that space.
“When you start in with the dumplings and noodles and sauces, or getting into … that’s a whole other level. We can’t have that.”
Ms. Lin said she believes the cooking of dumplings and noodles is consistent with the cooking of crepes and sees no reason why it should not be allowed in the building. She also says the Chinese bias is further evidenced in an email Ms. Turtorro sent to Mr. Russell last April that said the sourcing of “Asian food cuisine” at the restaurant caused a “health threat to the Orient community,” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked about the email to the town supervisor this week, Ms. Turtorro, who described herself as a chef who “cooks Asian food,” said she knew Ms. Lin and Mr. Bertault were going to “play the racist card.”
“I’m not racist, but it was taken in a racist way,” she said. “That’s unfortunate. But I feel more kicked in the stomach by these people, in terms of inner betrayal.”
In a letter set to be published in the Thursday, June 17 print edition of The Suffolk Times, Greenport resident Rona Smith, a friend of Ms. Turturro and Mr. Leshaw, called the accusations of anti-Asian sentiment “false.”
“The fact that the food is mostly Asian has nothing to do with this dispute at all,” Ms. Smith wrote. “That is simply a smokescreen. I hope we can all see through this charade. Fire safety regulations and Health Department licensing procedures are put in place to protect us all.”
She said the “shop has morphed into a restaurant without proper ventilation or a grease trap, among other shortcomings, putting the building and village in peril.”
Both parties agree the likelihood of a business relationship continuing at the property, where Ms. Turturro and Mr. Leshaw also plan to eventually live following a proposed expansion to the apartment in the back, is nonexistent beyond the current lease.
But there is a possible path to settling their dispute in the short term.
Last offseason, they participated in a mediation to resolve their ongoing litigation. Ms. Lin said the terms of the settlement include a 20% increase in rent to compensate the landlords for the outdoor space they’ve been using since the pandemic. Mr. Leshaw said it would require the tenants to address the building concerns.
To date, he said, his tenants have refused to sign it.
Ms. Lin said there are no violations to address and she feels threatened by what she sees as pressure to close their business and leave town.
“[Our landlords] have the time, they have the energy and they have the money, so they are asking the village people not to come here, not to buy my food, because [they say] we are dumping oil into the septic,” she said. “That’s when it got dirty. If people appreciate my cooking and they want to know about me, than why should I shut it down?”