Last week, people began entering Rocklands (2418 Wisconsin Ave.) to angrily accost its employees, according to owner John Snedden. In addition, the restaurant’s tiny “World Headquarters” building on 37th Street was pelted with eggs. “It seems to be an escalation” in a neighborhood campaign to pressure Rocklands into giving up its plans to expand next door, Snedden says. “It’s distressing. We’re not sure where this leads.”
Why the hate for Rocklands, a longtime Glover Park institution? Because some in the neighborhood wrongly hold the restaurant responsible for the likely closing of another institution, Max’s Best Homemade Ice Cream (2416 Wisconsin Ave.). This spring, the barbecue spot accepted its landlords’ offer to expand into the ice cream shop storefront starting July 1. At the time, Snedden was under the impression that Max’s Best owner Max Keshani planned to retire. But in early May, Keshani began telling friends that he had abruptly lost his lease—and that he suspected Snedden was to blame.
Snedden admits he told the landlords last year that he’d be willing to rent the storefront if it ever became available, but he had been doing that twice annually for the past 20 years. According to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Joe Fiorillo, a confidant and strong supporter of Keshani’s, “Rocklands is squeaky clean as far as their business procedures. [Snedden is] a clean-cut guy. I just don’t think you could say that there was any kind of collusion” between Snedden and the landlords over ending Keshani’s lease. In fact, the landlords reportedly had a second tenant lined up in case the Rocklands deal fell through—a sign that they intended to end Max’s tenancy, with or without Rocklands.
Still, some of Keshani’s supporters denounce Rocklands as a “bully” and call for boycotts and demonstrations. One commenter on a “Save Max’s Best Ice Cream” Facebook page with more than 750 followers urged others to rally “thousands” for protests in front of the store, to make Rocklands “bleed cash in response to community disgust.” With this week’s escalation of hostilities, it seems some Max’s devotees are taking these calls to heart.
But what precipitated Keshani’s current situation, Fiorillo says, was not Rocklands’ desire to expand, but a serious communication breakdown between Keshani and his landlords. According to Keshani, the property manager approached him last fall with a demand for a 33% rent increase starting July 1. (The property manager denies this, saying that Keshani was notified at that time that his lease would not be renewed.) Last October, when Keshani told Fiorillo about the expected rent increase, Fiorillo urged his friend to hire a lawyer to negotiate the matter, but that never happened, Fiorillo says. Keshani has said he told the property manager he wanted to negotiate the rent; his daughter, Neda, told the Georgetown Current that Keshani verbally accepted the rent that he claims was proposed. Either way, the property manager sent no lease documents. On April 26, Neda wrote the management firm a letter expressing the ice cream shop’s intent to exercise its option to renew the lease, Fiorillo says. But after 20 years, the lease was likely on its final renewal already, with no further option to renew. One week after Neda’s letter, the property manager gave written notice that the Max’s lease would end on June 30, and a shocked Keshani raised the alarm to friends.
After learning that Keshani was not closing Max’s voluntarily, Snedden wrote the landlords and offered to delay the start of his lease if they wanted Max’s to stay. It’s rumored that a real estate attorney who lives in Glover Park is now representing Keshani pro bono in an effort to extend his tenancy through at least November 30, but the attorney named in the rumor said that he couldn’t confirm any such role and asked that his name not be published. Many supporters have expressed a willingness to donate funds to help Keshani relocate his shop, and several local landlords have offered vacant storefronts, but Keshani says he has no interest in moving. Landlords Gail and Barbara Bassin have not responded to numerous requests for comment.