Primera Taza –a thriving coffee shop and popular community space along Boyle Heights’ First Street business corridor– may be forced to close its doors at the end of the month, the apparent result of a feud between two former business partners.

The coffee shop’s three-year lease ends on March 31 and the longtime property owner says he expects to turn over the space to a new, unnamed business on April 1.

“They got their lawyers involved and we got some legal help,” said owner Chuy Tovar Thursday, a day after shocking Primera Taza’s customer with a dire Instagram post.

“10 Days left on our current lease.. battling the property managers and landlord to keep #PrimeraTaza at our remodeled home in #BoyleHeights,” the post read partially.

Tovar said that his former partner Antonio Segoviano was in charge of financial matters while he took care of day-to-day operations. Tovar said Segoviano informed him last month that he didn’t want to be involved with Primera Taza anymore. Then, he added, Segoviano opted out of an option to renew the coffee shop’s lease without informing him.

“On the 1st of March he communicated with the property managers that he no longer was going to make the lease payments, which is totally fine. I can make them,” Tovar said. “But he also stated that he –not me– wanted no part of the renewal of the lease. Property managers I guess took it that we weren’t interested.”

Chuy Tovar at his Primera Taza coffee shop in Boyle Heights. Photo by Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Tovar said he didn’t find out about Segoviano’s decision until he returned from a trip to Mexico for his daughter’s wedding, on the first weekend in March, and that he reached out to property owner Bob Akhava upon his return. “At that point the property manager said, ‘oh, it’s too late’”.

Ahkava said that he indeed received a notification from Tovar on March 6, informing him that he wanted to stay in the property, but that he had already leased the property to another tenant.

“The timing was very unfortunate,” said Akhava, who’s owned the building since 1985 and has since enjoyed “a good relationship” with his tenants.

The landlord said he felt obliged to “honor and respect my commitment to another tenant,” whom he identified only as “a local, community person.”

Akhava said that he was aware of “legal issues” between Segoviano and Tovar, but that he expected to have the space delivered on April 1 and that a sign announcing a new business would be posted soon thereafter.

Tovar said he was surprised that the landlord did not offer the property to  him before looking for another tenant.

“I think that out of courtesy, not because of the contract, I should have been able to bid on it… my business is still here,” said Tovar, who said he is consulting with a business lawyer and considering legal action. “That’s where we’re at right now.”

Calls to Segoviano requesting an interview went unanswered, but Tovar said the threat of losing the lease couldn’t come at a worse time. He said that Primera Taza was turning a profit for the first time since he and his former partner took over the coffee shop in 2015 from Juan Romero, who opened it in 2009, and that the business is about to be featured in a new series from Discovery Latino titled “Emprendedores” (Entrepreneurs), premiering on Sunday.

“They reached out to us, they saw what we were doing with the community and they wanted to help us redo the coffee shop, but according to my vision,” he said.

Tovar explained that the show’s producers redid the outdoor patio and paid for an indoor remodeling that included the painting on a wall of a huge map of Mexico, showing all the places where Primera Taza gets its coffee beans.

“I don’t think anybody in the U.S. serves the coffee that we do,” he said.We’re the only ones that carry coffee from Mexico, period.”

Tovar said the “Emprendedores” producers also offered financial help and advice that he immediately put into effect, like closing the shop at 4 pm, so as not to exhaust his workforce. He said a gofundme campaign to convert Primera Taza into a cooperative is ongoing.

The Primera Taza episode of “Emprendedores” is set to air on April 8, and Tovar said he hopes to still be on his well-known site, walking distance from Mariachi Plaza and other popular restaurants and bars on one of Boyle Heights most iconic business districts.

Since the Instagram post, the coffee entrepreneur says he has received an outpouring of support and that dozens of community members have stopped by the shop, including a representative from Councilman José Huízar’s office.

“We are super thankful for the community backing us up,” said Tovar. “I don’t know if 100 percent but definitely 99.9 percent of the people have supported the changes and supported what we’re trying to do here.”

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Antonio Mejías-Rentas

Antonio Mejías-Rentas is a Senior Editor at Boyle Heights Beat, where he mentors teenage journalists, manages the organization’s website and covers local issues. A veteran bilingual journalist, he's...

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