The grill almost went cold last weekend at Best Steak & Gyros House.

Cambodian war refugees Sophal Nhep and his wife, Tevy, lost their lease in May after 26 years in a small strip mall at the once-decrepit, crime-ravaged corner of E. Franklin and Chicago avenues.

It’s a friendly, modest-price place where they had, on occasion, sheltered kids from gangs in the 1990s and fed mayors and U.S. senators, cops, the occasional inebriate and tons of neighborhood folks since the strip mall opened in 1991 on what had been a vacant lot.

Sophal Nhep said last week that he forgot to renew the five-year lease that expired last December. Subsequent negotiations proved fruitless.

The new owners since 2014, Somali businessmen, wanted to increase Best Steak’s rent from $2,000 to $6,000 per month. The Nheps were distraught. Then, on Friday, the Nheps’ lawyer informed them they had been offered a four-month extension at $3,000 per month.

Sophal Nhep, 65, said he plans to sign that deal and hopes to negotiate a new lease of a few more years.

The owners of what is now called Baraka Plaza said earlier in the week that they had a prospective tenant who would pay much higher rent.

Ahmed Nur, a partner in the mall as well as the single largest tenant, Baraka Child Care Center, said the owners made the extension to allow the parties time to negotiate.

He added that the Nheps had paid a lower per-square-foot rate than Baraka Child Care, going back to when the Nheps had a 10 percent ownership in the mall. The Nheps and other shop owners in the mall bought then-Chicago Crossings from the developer in 2004 for a discounted price of $1 million. The Nheps said they owned 7 percent. The owners sold to Baraka Plaza partners for $2.4 million in 2014.

Nur said he needs to raise rent to cover higher expenses and taxes. He added that he has a prospective tenant interested in the Best Steak space.

Regardless, I hope something can be worked out to keep Best Steak alive until the deserved retirement of Sophal and Tevy Nhep.

The Nheps say they never grossed more than $50,000 a year in profit, working six days a week at the restaurant. And they say results have diminished since a new restaurant opened two doors down a couple of years ago that features the same type of food.

Yet they had a big impact, as did other courageous entrepreneurs, at the now-packed little mall.

That several-block corner of the Phillips neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s was best known for gin joints. Most have since been shuttered because of related crime, violence and police calls that cost taxpayers millions. And there was drug trade and gang violence.

The Nheps, who quit low-wage factory and clerk jobs to open their business, raised three adult children. Those three, who worked in the family business when they were young, earned educations and work in IT, business analysis and software.

“I didn’t want them to work as hard as we did,” Sophal said. The kids, now in their late 20s, were concerned last week over the lease.

“It took the wind out of us,” said Nick Nhep, a corporate business analyst. “My parents didn’t know what was going on until they got the letter [informing them of the four-month extension]. That gives us some time. I don’t have to scramble to find them a new spot.”

Sophal Nhep started reaching out Friday to customers who thought Best Steak would close. The family also may launch a food truck to diversify.

The overarching good news is that there is more commerce and less crime at this intersection today.

The Nheps remember the drug deals and violence on the corner and at adjacent Peavey Park. It’s much dissipated.

“It’s gotten better little by little,” Sophal Nhep said a few years ago. “It was all new to us back in 1992. The liquor stores, the drunks, the gangs, the violence, the police calls. We treat everyone with respect, but it was tough.”

The dive bars and liquor stores were mostly shut down by neighbors over license-renewal issues in the 1990s. The city and developers worked on more housing, including for chronic alcoholics and others. Fewer need to be hauled to detox at public expense.

As a result, there’s more workforce housing and businesses along E. Franklin.

The East African, Latino, Southeast Asian and other immigrants have helped rebuild a more prosperous, peaceful neighborhood since 1991.

The revival of E. Franklin, like E. Lake Street and other inner-city commercial arteries, will take time.

E. Franklin between Chicago and Cedar Avenue is no glossy Mall of America. But it is the commercial-residential face of emerging America, in a scrappy neighborhood where Swedes and Norwegians were the immigrants a century ago.

The revival has attracted small restaurants, art galleries, an Aldi grocery, Franklin Street Bakery and Roger Beck Florist in what was the notorious Mr. Arthur’s bar. There’s Project for Pride in Living’s housing and job training center in a once-abandoned building. The city and Hennepin County upgraded Franklin and remodeled historic Franklin Library. Generations of immigrants have learned English and studied for citizenship tests there.

The Nheps said they made about $100,000 on their 7 percent share of the 2014 sale to Baraka.

But they still have a house payment and car note, after helping their kids get educated. They can’t yet afford to retire.

Let’s hope they are able to do it on their terms.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.