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The Fight to Save a Gem of a Place : Hermosa Beach: The Poiriers have operated their diner for 28 years. Now they're being evicted. But customers aren't giving up without a fight.

June 28, 1990|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's kind of glum these days down at The Gem Cafe, behind the gingham curtains and the Formica countertop.

Oh, the ham is still fresh-baked, and just the other day a pair of regulars declared that the homemade coconut cream pie was "better than sex." But for the last month, it has seemed, about every other word at Henry and Grace Poirier's Hermosa Beach diner has been about its imminent demise.

After 28 years on Pier Avenue, the Poiriers and their cafe are being evicted July 1. The landlords, film producer Warren Miller and his wife, Laurie, describe it as a business decision.

But the Poiriers, who are in their 60s, say the move will deprive them of a retirement nest egg they were counting on.

And their customers--who say it will deprive them of a darn good cup of coffee--have rallied to the cause.

"We've formed a Save The Gem Cafe Committee," said local businessman Richard McCurdy, who added that he has gathered the names of more than 60 people who want to help keep the Poiriers in business. Among other things, McCurdy and his group have offered, in vain, to buy the tiny storefront.

"It's a gathering place. You feel like you're sitting down with Mom and Dad," said McCurdy, who for the last three years has dropped by The Gem at least three times a week for a slice of lemon cake. "Unfortunately, Henry's not the best businessman in the world, and he's been renting there month-to-month for years. He doesn't have a lease."

The Poiriers say that for the last year they have tried in vain to get the Millers to write them a lease. But Laurie Miller says they were offered a lease several years ago and turned it down.

Both sides say communication has been bad: The Poiriers don't want to deal with Warren Miller's property manager and Miller--a successful filmmaker with a string of cult movies about downhill skiing to his credit--moved to Hawaii several years ago and no longer works out of the studio next door.

Without a lease, the Poiriers say, they can't sell their restaurant. And if they can't sell, they can't retire.

"I don't know what I'm going to do. This has been my life for almost 28 years," said 65-year-old Henry Poirier, wiping a damp rag across his gray Formica countertop.

Since 1964, when Miller bought the building in which the cafe is located, Poirier said, he has operated without a lease, on what he believed was "a gentleman's agreement," paying Miller the $475-a-month rent in cash.

But when he decided to retire this year and asked Miller to draw up a lease, he said, he was unable to get the landlord to meet with him.

Warren Miller--who at 66 is himself preparing to retire--was unavailable for comment. But his wife, who has been handling his property for the last four years, said the Poiriers had ample time to prepare for their retirement and decades in which to obtain a lease.

Laurie Miller noted that The Gem's rent has been far below market value. A dentist's office next door in a smaller space was renting for $1,100 a month, she said. Moreover, she added, the Poiriers had refused in the past to sign leases drawn up by her husband's property managers. In April, she said, she and her husband were approached by a prospective tenant, and, believing that the Poiriers were ready to retire anyway, the Millers leased the space.

"Sometimes people have to do things that aren't easy for business reasons, that are part of an overall picture that not everybody can see," Laurie Miller said. "Had there been a different personality to our relationship over the years, it might have been different. But it's a business decision, and it's our right to make that decision. They refused to have a lease, and you can't have it both ways."

Henry Poirier denied there had been any ill will between the Millers and himself. In fact, he said, he was taken by surprise when the eviction notice arrived May 15.

"I can't understand this," he said. "If he wanted more money, why didn't he come over and tell me? Why send a cold thing like this?"

Poirier's customers echoed his anger and bafflement.

"They've handled this in such a cold, callous, entrepreneurial manner. These are elderly people. It's like hearing that somebody has decided to send Mom and Dad off to the home," said actor Max Wright, who played the father on the NBC sitcom, "ALF."

Wright, who is helping McCurdy publicize The Gem's plight, said that his group offered to buy the restaurant for a little more than $200,000 but that the Millers refused, citing potential tax losses. For the last several weeks, he added, his group has been searching for alternative restaurant sites.

But in any case, Wright and other customers said, it would be impossible to recreate the chatty ambience of The Gem, which Poirier bought in 1962 for $6,000 from two sisters who had opened it in 1949.

"I've been coming to this place since before Henry owned it, even, since right after the war," said 84-year-old Jay D. Lusher, settling into his customary seat at the counter's far end.

"That'll be World War II," chimed retiree Dick Shrode from a few seats down, where he was splitting a slice of chocolate layer cake with his wife, Dolores.

"When my wife was very sick," Lusher went on, "before she passed on in 1985, Henry made me meals to take to her. Mashed potatoes, vegetables, meat, sometimes pie. At the end, when she couldn't eat meat anymore, he fixed her two kinds of squash. She liked that. "

It has been customers such as Lusher and Shrode, Poirier said, who have given him his modest living all these years, and his dream had been to sell the restaurant for $60,000, and to train the new owners in his tricks of the trade: How to wash the floors and the windows just so. How to roast the beef and bake the ham. How to rise at 6 a.m., as his wife still does, to make the homemade fruit and cream pies.

That skill, he said, is what will be lost when the landlords shut down The Gem.

"Places like this, they're on the way out," Poirier said. "Places like this are hard to find."

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