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One Friday last month, sometime between the breakfast tacos and the lunch meat, Nadir Foteh received a telephone call from his landlord.
Foteh runs Freddy's Deli, a small family-owned cafe on the ground floor of the 1800 West Loop South office building near San Felipe. Freddy's has been feeding tenants there since December 1992. In the restaurant game, that almost makes Freddy's an institution.
The eatery's partners -- Foteh, brother Fred and sister Angie -- had served up their food without complaints. Then Jennifer Miller, the property manager for the building's owner, Crescent Real Estate Equities, phoned Nadir Foteh to say they had to meet when the cafe closed at 3 p.m.
He even offered to get together earlier, but 3 p.m. was perfect for Miller: After all, her intent was to inform Foteh that Freddy's had served its last smothered pork chop there. Accompanied by a locksmith, the chief building engineer and a police officer, Miller presented Foteh with an eviction notice and gave him two hours to vacate the premises.
The heavy 46-year-old man, with glasses and wavy black hair that's starting to gray, was shocked. For one thing, he couldn't relocate his equipment and inventory by Monday, let alone in two hours. For another: Why?
Foteh says he tried to appeal to reason. But as workers covered Freddy's glass facade with thick brown wrapping paper, he says Miller told him, "It's too late for talk."
In fact, the Foteh family and Crescent Real Estate Equities had exchanged very few words before the eviction. The Fort Worth-based company bought 1800 West Loop South in 1997. Nadir Foteh signed a new five-year lease with Crescent in December 1999 and agreed to spend at least $10,000 to improve the kitchen and dining area.
With or without the added mural and trim, Freddy's has a pizza-parlor ambience -- simple, roomy, well lit, with few flourishes. The menu features a salad bar, daily specials and, of course, grilled cow.
Foteh notes that few food establishments in Galleria-area office buildings have grills. "We're not Jason's and we're not the Wall Street Deli," he says. "We're just a place that serves what I think is pretty good food."
Foteh's Palestinian parents were in the cafe and grocery business in Ramallah before immigrating to Houston from Israel's West Bank in 1962, when Foteh was six. They continued the trade here, raising the three children now in the business. Fred, Freddy's namesake, runs a family cafe in southwest Houston. At Freddy's, Nadir Foteh -- invariably dressed in a ball cap, shorts, short-sleeve polo shirt and green apron -- is captain and maître d'. There's also a cook, busperson and Angie, who handles the register.
The trouble with Crescent started last summer, when Foteh noticed that the kitchen exhaust and grease-disposal systems needed cleaning. He hired a contractor, who asked for the blueprints of the exhaust ducts. Foteh says he called Crescent "three or four times" for the plans, but received no response until last September 17. That's when Jennifer Miller sent a letter -- it came on a sheet of plain bond paper, oddly enough, rather than Crescent letterhead -- notifying Foteh that he was in default of three sections of his lease because the exhaust and disposal systems weren't clean.
Foteh at last was able to get the plans and, as Crescent suggested, "engage a qualified professional" to clean the ducts and grease trap. As directed by Miller, he forwarded Crescent "evidence of such actions": a $575 invoice, dated October 28 from SOS Services of Houston.
That was the extent of the dialogue with Crescent before January 25, when Miller gave Freddy's the boot. The following Monday, Crescent greeted tenants in the 24-story office tower with a memo stating that Freddy's Deli had "ceased operations."
Some tenants, including two attorneys on the 16th floor, were offended. "As a family operated business," the lawyers wrote, "the members of the Foteh family have exhibited a personal and genuine interest in all of us as patrons, as fellow tenants and friends, which seems to be a rarity in today's business environment."
An executive with the building's senior tenant, an asset management company on the 19th floor, told Miller in a note that he was saddened. "I am not sure about the reason for the Deli's closing," the executive wrote, "but I would certainly encourage you to do whatever you can to work out the problem."
Crescent spokesperson Sandra Porter said the company would not comment on pending litigation. Nor would it make available the results of a strange sort of secret operation the company initiated to try to expose Nadir Foteh as a liar.
Without notifying the Fotehs, Crescent hired an "independent contractor" to inspect the exhaust fan and grease trap, the two-page lease termination notice states. The contractor concluded that they "had not been adequately cleaned, despite your assurances to the Landlord "
Under the circumstances, Crescent had "no choice" but to terminate the lease, the notice says.
When the company refused to discuss the situation, Foteh sued. A judge ordered Freddy's back in business, pending a hearing before a justice of the peace. Miller issued tenants a one-sentence memo that Freddy's was reopening January 30.