For more than 25 years, Gwenael and Annie Goulet were fixtures at their revered Hastings-on-Hudson bistro Buffet de la Gare. But after Gwenael was diagnosed with cancer in 2001 and after juggling work and chemotherapy for several years, in 2005 Gwenael decided to sell the restaurant.
He hand-picked a successor who appeared a perfect fit: a Manhattan-based French chef. In a trusting spirit, they fashioned an old-school business deal where the Goulets continued to hold the note, while the new owners made payments.
What ensued could fill the pages of a Hollywood script (and would be best told over Gwenael’s cassoulet and a few glasses of French wine), but the short version is: roughly two years into the agreement, the new owners stopped making payments, the Goulets say, and the couple discovered that the chef had decamped to his restaurant in the city, leaving the sous chef to run the kitchen. The Goulets decided to repossess the restaurant in 2008.
That’s when things got ugly.
“They basically held us hostage through the liquor license—they refused to release theirs so we could not get one unless we released them from their contract,” says Gwendal Goulet, Gwenael and Annie’s son, who now helps run the restaurant. In addition, part of the restaurant—which held six tables and the bathrooms—was located in a portion of the building the Goulets did not own. Because the landlord wanted to triple their lease payments, they had to close it off and expand the front to accommodate for bathrooms.
“At that point, we decided to renovate completely,” Gwendal says. “The tin walls and the bar were the only things we kept.” They also returned to the original menu. The results? “We do more revenue now with eleven tables and the bar than when we had seventeen tables and a strong economy,” Gwendal reports.