The food-and-drink scene along Mill Avenue in downtown Tempe has seen a lot of changes recently, and not just because of COVID.
Dierks Bentley's Whiskey Row and El Hefe are done, Gordon Biersch is gone, and now it appears Rúla Búla Irish Pub and Restaurant is on its way out.
Located at 401 South Mill Avenue in the colorful and historic Andre Building, Rula Bula has been in operation since August 2000, serving up Guinness from a special tap and a mix of traditional Irish fare and popular bar food like wings with Guinness-spiked barbecue sauce.
In 2019, Wexford Developments of Calgary, whose U.S. division is based in West Palm Beach, Florida, bought the Andre Building. Wexford is landlord to several other Mill Avenue businesses, including P.F. Chang's and Charlie Trumbull's.
Following the purchase of the building, Rula Bula's founder, Steve Goumas, says he requested a long-term lease from the Wexford folks — real long, like 30 or 100 years. The pub previously had a 10-year lease from 2000 to 2010, which it then extended in two five-year chunks.
Wexford said no dice on the long-term lease, offering Rula Bula in 2019 a ten-year option at a price that Goumas says was much more than it had been paying.
Sam Gordon with Wexford Developments tells Phoenix New Times that the amount of rent Rula Bula had been paying under the previous landlord was out of step with the current economy and that the two couldn't come to an agreement on what was fair.
"In early 2019, we attempted to renew Rula Bula by offering them a 10-year option to remain in the space at what we believed was a fair market rate, commiserate with what we were renting very similar space for in other buildings we own on Mill Avenue," Gordon says in a statement. "After much discussion over several months, we were unable to agree on renewal terms with Rula, and given the impending lease expiration, we decided to go in another direction."
Rula Bula was originally told by a Wexford representative in the summer of 2020 that its lease wouldn't be renewed, Goumas says.
"The reason he gave us the first time was that he didn't feel we were a good fit for the community,” Goumas says.
But then, amidst COVID last summer, Wexford told Rula Bula the pub could stay on another year at the Andre Building. But the end of that extra year is coming up on June 30, and it's for real this time. Barring some dramatic changes, Rula Bula will soon have to pack things up.
Goumas doesn't intend to go quietly.
“At minimum, we want to control the narrative,” Goumas says. “We don't want people to think we went out of business because of COVID, or that we just went out of business, or that we were bought out, because none of that is true.”
After taking over the Andre Building, a former saddlery and harness shop that dates back to 1888, in 2000, Goumas says the pub invested over a million dollars into its interior. The custom-made bar was shipped over from Ireland, there's custom glasswork, and the floors are well-worn white pine.
There's a clause in Rula Bula's lease that allows them to "remove everything that we put in here, so we have no alternative right now but to entirely strip this pub to the bare walls, put everything into 40-foot containers like it was when it came over from Ireland, and wait to see if we can relocate and find the right building, or the right partnership, or the right restaurant group, or see what develops.”
He says he doesn't know right now if Rula Bula will stay on Mill Avenue or even in Tempe. "Everything's unknown right now."
Gordon says Wexford tried to find another spot for Rula Bula on Mill Avenue.
"Despite our not being able to agree on a long-term extension with Rula, Rula continued to voice their desire to remain in the space or on Mill Avenue, and we tried to work with them to find another space within our portfolio to relocate them, also to no avail," Gordon says. "We wish the Rula team all the best in the future."
But Rula Bula does not want to relocate to just any old building on Mill Avenue. “Rula Bula is the Andre Building,” Goumas says. “The Andre saddlery shop is incorporated into it.”
Gordon says Wexford "located a fantastic tenant for Rula's space very quickly." The rumor going around is that a concept from Pedal Haus founder and restaurateur Julian Wright is moving in. New Times reached out for comment from Wright's people but hadn't heard back as of this writing.
In the meantime, Rula Bula has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the staff to transition to new jobs. “We want to make sure no staff gets stuck with rent they can't pay or something like that,” Goumas says. Some staff members go back 15 years. Funds will also assist in the packing, storing, and transportation of the pub’s interior.
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