The future seems grim for Opties & Dinghies, the tiny ice cream, crepes and dumplings shop on Village Lane in Orient. The current proprietors, who have run the eatery for five years, confirmed this week that they intend to shut down when their lease runs out next month.
What is clear is that rancorous ongoing disputes between owners Claudia Lin and Vincent Bertault and landlords Joan Turturro and Howard Leshaw over the 16-seat café next door to the Orient post office reached a fever pitch this summer. That’s when the landlords, who had lived elsewhere during most of the five-year lease period, according to Ms. Lin, moved into a small apartment connected to the back of the shop in May.
“So we had the whole summer of nonsense,” Ms. Lin said in an interview this week.
A spectrum of claims and counterclaims ranging from alleged lease and code violations to charges of racism and even a physical assault have been detailed in more than 20 police reports stretching back several years, along with ongoing litigation. Both sides are suing each other.
The latest claim in the years-long battle emerged last week on social media, when the proprietors posted pictures of one of the landlords inside the shop while they were gone, accusing her of trespassing. The caption on the picture read: “Attention: A break-in at Opties & Dinghies by uninvited intruders while we are out for a day of rest. IT DOESNT STOP. Beware of landlords breaking in at anytime to touch and take pictures of your private space.”
In less than a week, the Instagram post generated hundreds of likes and 87 comments, virtually all of them supporting Ms. Lin and Mr. Bertault.
Ms. Lin said she intends to file a new police report over the incident.
“This is even more brazen than the average,” she said. “We left [the shop] Monday night after a long season of hard work. We needed some rest. Tuesday, they’re here. Wednesday, they came again. It’s nonstop, nonstop, nonstop. I mean, how dare anybody do this?”
Ms. Lin seemed to acknowledge that she and Mr. Bertault may not have read the entire lease closely enough due to their trust at the time in Ms. Turturro and Mr. Leshaw.
What has devolved into a seemingly intractable series of bitter disputes began with a warm friendship.
“We’ve known each other for many, many years,” Ms. Lin said. “We used to holiday together on Christmas and Thanksgiving” at the Orient Inn, which the landlords owned at the time. She said Ms. Turturro and Mr. Leshaw were generous to her and her partner at the start of their friendship.
“When this became vacant, they offered this spot to us,” she said. “They named the price. They named the terms. We never argued the price to friends, [or negotiated] when we should start, when we should pay.
“It was very amicable,” she continued. “Actually, too amicable, because we didn’t read the damn lease, you know, because it was just written on a piece of paper, two, three pages, and with a huge [addendum].”
Attorneys for both couples have not responded to interview requests.
Mr. Leshaw and Ms. Turturro declined to speak to a reporter this week, citing ongoing legal actions against the proprietors, but the couple told this newspaper in 2021 that the trouble began over a letter they received from PSEG Long Island in September 2019. The letter said that electric usage at the property had skyrocketed, and in response the utility was raising the rate. The building contains the small apartment, the shop and the post office.
Mr. Leshaw said in 2021 that his primary complaint was about how the building was being used. He said the Chinese food being cooked in the tiny shop’s kitchen was both driving up the electric bills and violating town and county health department code. He said the refrigerators and freezers were being powered through extension cords, which he said was a fire hazard in an old wooden building.
“Mr. Bertault got his license from the [Suffolk County Department] of Health based on a menu that was fraudulent,” Mr. Leshaw said at the time, arguing that the Chinese food cooking portion of the operation wasn’t disclosed. “I said, ‘Go tell them what you’re cooking.’ ”
For years, the space that Opties & Dinghies occupies had been serving ice cream and gelato, and it was so important to the landlords to continue that tradition that they wrote it into the lease as a requirement. Both the landlords and the tenants agreed that the shop would also operate as a retail creperie and patisserie.
The lease for the shop calls for $11,100 a year in rent, the landlords said in 2021 — not enough to cover the cost of elevated electric use from the shop.
Ms. Lin, who said she has owned a home in Orient for 22 years, said this week that the physical proximity to the landlords over the summer made it the worst season yet.
“This is just one of many, many, many things that they do that’s menacing and harassing. We have never had any peace to do business in the last five years. This owner… even after three years [since the start of the pandemic] she puts on a mask to water her bushes [and says] that ‘Chinese food smells,’ and ‘You should get out.’ ”
Ms. Lin said that she and Mr. Bertault currently have no plans to reopen elsewhere.
“We are mentally and physically devastated by this experience.”
As the lease runs down to its final day at the end of October, Ms. Lin is ready for a new adventure.
“You know, hopefully … we can just call it the end of a chapter. We move on.”