His shisha lounge closed, Edmonton man says he’s still a target

An Edmonton man who fought with the city for years before closing his beleaguered shisha lounge says authorities continue to target him by imposing unreasonable restrictions that drove away a tenant.

Though a city committee ruled in February that Nyala Lounge did not pose a risk to the public, Moe Tesfay recently closed the business — a popular venue among African community members — and leased the space.

But his new tenant, a chef from Calgary, has backed out after being told he must display signs barring gang symbols and colours in order to acquire a liquor licence.

“External and internal signage shall be posted at each entrance to the licensed premises advising that gang members, their associates or any person wearing gang colours or symbols are prohibited from entering the premises,” the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis (AGLC) wrote to Arat Kilo Restaurant and Bar on April 5.

Tesfay said he gave the new tenant an option to back out of the lease if he encountered difficulties with authorities.

That tenant now plans to leave at the end of the month. 

“When the City of Edmonton approved a licence without any restrictions, I believed the prospect of this business being successful was high,” the tenant said in a letter to Tesfay terminating his lease.

But after the city “influenced AGLC to impose unreasonable restrictions,” the tenant wrote in the letter, “I believe it would be impossible to enforce without great cost and without having our staff become discriminating to any potential clientele.” 

It took more than a year to find someone to lease the building, Tesfay said, and this latest development will make it even more difficult for him to move on.

“I don’t even know what a gang colour is — red or black or white,” Tesfay said. “This is pretty much discrimination. They just want me to go bankrupt and leave.”

Moe Tesfay says the additional conditions have driven away his new tenant. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

The signs were among several conditions introduced days after the new restaurant owner met with the AGLC and Public Safety Compliance Team (PSCT) on March 28, said Tesfay.

By that point, the city had already issued a business licence, and the lease had already been signed.

Contacted by CBC News, the AGLC would not elaborate on what it considers to be gang colours or symbols. The agency refused to answer questions or disclose how many other Edmonton bars are required to post such signs.

In February, a city appeal committee overturned a decision by the licensing department to revoke Nyala’s business licence. The cancellation was based on a submission by the compliance team — one of four attempts in the past year to shut down the shisha bar.

The committee found Nyala had breached additional conditions placed on its business licence but public safety had not been compromised, as argued by the compliance team. Tesfay had previously fought the conditions imposed by the city, which significantly ramped up security measures, arguing they weren’t affordable.

‘A history of concerns’

In the AGLC’s April letter to the new Arat restaurant, reasons for additional conditions echo past arguments made by the compliance team to close Nyala. They include “a history of concerns involving non-compliance with regulatory agencies, including an incident involving a firearm (and) obstruction of justice.”

Tesfay is accused of providing a false statement to police after someone pulled a gun during a community meeting at Nyala in January 2018. The trial resumes in July.

The latest difficulties, Tesfay said, are a continuation of the retaliation he has faced since formally complaining on July 7, 2017, that police were harassing his customers.

He has successfully fought dozens of bylaw tickets issued by the compliance team. The city issued a news release when Tesfay was found guilty last July of overcrowding, one of a handful of convictions.

After cancelling Nyala’s licence last September, the compliance team called a news conference. The next day, the licensing department quietly reversed the move after discovering Tesfay had not been properly notified.

Sullies owner and community

A volunteer with the Edmonton Coalition for Human Rights and Justice said conditions placed on the venue go far beyond what’s needed.

“They’ve caused a lot of disruption and suffering to this man, who by our accounts is a veteran and in a great community leader,” said Mark Cherrington, referring to Tesfay’s 20 years of service with the Canadian military. “It not only sullies the owner, it sullies the establishment and the community.

“We haven’t seen anything to reflect the concerns that the city and the compliance team have. Nothing.”

The compliance team declined comment.

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