Many a Detroiter knows the draw of Small World Café — a beloved luncheon spot not only for its cozy atmosphere but for its near-addictive and cheap luncheon curries and veggies and perfect basmati rice served by chef and owner Rita Ahluwalia. Despite its location in the basement, down a hall, inside the International Institute (located along Kirby across the street from the Detroit Institute of Arts) and its short hours of operation — from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday — the place has a loyal following. Denizens of the Cultural Center area, professors, artists and students are regulars. The handwritten menu and bright, open space adorned with local artwork contribute to the neighborhood feel.
To the chagrin of its fans (who are in a bit of an uproar), this Friday, following a lease dispute, the café will close its doors for good after 11 years of operation.
Negotiations on a new lease have been ongoing since April, when Ahluwalia told the institute she was planning to sell the business to Small World’s manager, Lisa Colwell. Colwell and Ahluwalia worked together on the new lease that would be in Colwell’s name, but when an agreement couldn’t be made, they decided to close the restaurant.
The International Institute, an 85-year-old nonprofit that works to bring together Detroit’s international residents and students with classes, seminars and services, proposed increasing the café’s rent (which includes utilities) from $1,333 to $1,500. Yumana Dubaisi, the institute’s interim director, says the increase would pay for inflation and that the rent hadn’t been raised in four years. Also, the lease would only last one year, as opposed to the previous three-year leases, because the institute considers Colwell a new tenant, says Dubaisi.
The café was opposed to the changes.
In another point of dispute, the café wanted the lease to guarantee parking spaces for café employees at the institute’s lot, while the institute “didn’t want to start a precedent,” Dubaisi says.
Each side accuses the other of making unfair demands.
“I feel like [the International Institute] should have been more amenable to working with us to keep the Small World open because it is such an important part of the Cultural Center,” Ahluwalia says. “So many people depend on this restaurant and love it, and love a lot of things about it. Not just that it’s cheap, not just that the food is good, but they love the vibe, they love that it’s friendly and the service is amicable and that it feels like home.
“Why do your best to destroy something when it’s good?”
Based on the institute’s proposed lease changes, “it just wasn’t economically feasible from a business perspective to keep it open,” says Ahluwalia. “For a restaurant to sign a lease for a year doesn’t make any sense.”
Dubaisi says she wants people to understand that it was the café that decided not to renew, and that she feels the institute did all it could, within reason, to keep Small World as a tenant. The institute’s board of directors has received applications from other restaurants interested in the space and wants to continue to lease the space to a restaurant with an international theme, she says.
Ahluwalia says she’s amazed the institute would let go of the café so easily.
“I don’t think they quite get the role that we play in the community and how important it is to a lot of people,” she says. The talented cook is not sure what her next move will be.
Matt Sikora has been lunching at Small World for 10 years. To him, the restaurant is a Detroit institution, providing reasonably priced fare in a friendly environment.
“The special nachos are my Friday reward,” says Sikora, associate educator at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Ben Hernandez has been a waiter on and off at Small World for five years.
“I’m going to miss the people,” he says, “There’s definitely a little community that revolves around here.”Ronit Feldman is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org