Sari Maharani had barely opened the doors to her downtown Miami restaurant Little Lotus when she says her landlord was already trying to find a way to kick her out without just cause. Now the former paralegal of Indonsesian descent is locked in an epic legal fight with Abram Aminov, a millionaire Russian jeweler who owns two buildings on Flagler Street and NE First Street, where the Little Lotus is located.
She is accusing Aminov and his son, Mani, of undermining her business in order to force her to break her lease. "I've never experienced a landlord like this," she says. "He has created a hostile environment to stress me out."
The Aminovs did not respond to three messages with their office assistant seeking comment. According to Maharani's lawsuit, filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court this past June, the father and son have tried to kill her business because they are not happy with the rental agreement they made with her. She signed the lease in April 4, 2011, agreeing to pay $2,000 until February 28, 2013, as well as an additional monthly payment of $183 so she could stay open until 11 p.m. and be able to put tables outside the Little Lotus in the lobby area of the International Jewelry Center at 22 NE First St.
The Little Lotus has received great reviews since it opened. Her crispy paratha cake was chosen as one of the best things to eat in Miami by former SushiSamba chef Michael Bloise . In a Miami New Times review from July 28, 2011, food writer Lesley Elliott noted Little Lotus offered " a surprisingly large menu of sushi and tapas-style plates that capture the essence of an authentic Asian kitchen." She added that the restaurant's "lack of pretension is precisely why Little Lotus delivers such a pleasant shock when it comes to culinary consumption." This past June 14, Little Lotus was named Best Hidden Gem in the Best Of issue.
But despite all the glowing press, her landlords began harassing and intimidating Maharani in April, the lawsuit alleges. First, the Aminovs broke their agreement allowing her to stay open until 11 p.m. and have tables in the lobby outside the restaurant. As a result, she went from grossing $10,000 a week to $1,500 a week. The lawsuit claims she was forced to lay off her waitress, busboy and dishwasher.
Her complaint contains an affidavit from Anthony Hinkle who was working for the Aminovs when Maharani signed her lease. According to Hinkle's statement, Aminov's son Mani complained two weeks after she moved in that his dad "made a raw deal with her and I'd like her to get out."
Hinkle alleges the Aminovs were cooking up ways to make it hard for her to run her restaurant. Sometime in March or April, Hinkle says Mani Aminov asked him if Maharani "can survive if we took away her tables?" The Aminovs were also overcharging Maharani for her share of the water and gas bill, Hinkle claimed. He quit shortly thereafter, according to his affidavit.
Maharani's sushi chef, Fnu Ferry, also provided an affidavit claiming that on June 6 he witnessed Abram Aminov scream at Maharani, "I want you to close your restaurant tomorrow. I don't care about your customers."
Six days later, Aminov's office assistant collected her seven tables and 28 chairs in the lobby and locked the furniture in the building's storage room, the lawsuit claims.
On June 22, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Lester Langer issued a temporary injunction ordering the Aminovs to stop forcing her to close at 7 p.m. and ordered them to allow her to put her tables outside the lobby to accommodate more customers. Lester wrote that "Little Lotus has suffered and will continue to suffer immediate and irreparable harm."
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But her landlords' unfair treatment didn't end, Maharani claims. She says when the bulb outside her gate burnt out, the Aminovs took three weeks to change it and that she didn't have hot water for three weeks in August. A month ago, she says, she discovered the Aminovs were using her electric meter to supply power to his leasing office and the lobby. And three weeks ago, Aminov put a sticker on the entrance door prohibiting bicycles inside the building, which only applies to her sushi chef since he rides his bicycle to work.
On October 31, her lawyers sent Aminov demanding he reimburse her $25,561 for the electric bill and the other utilities and that he remove the no bicycles sign.