Some call it the Tess Factor.
Whatever bar or restaurant she’s running, loyal customers follow. Vibrant, motherly and in-your-face, Tess Collins has been a fixture on Lark Street for 25 years.
She is all about community. If folks are hungry, she’ll give them something to do and something to eat. Running open mics, giving bands a place to call home, bringing together folks from all walks of life for a pint and some Larkarella sticks. The quintessential hostess, she’s constantly reading people and checking their moods, talking to them as though they were sitting in her living room.
Ride the elevator with her, and by the time you reach the third floor, she’ll know who you are. See her again, and she’s liable to ask after your grandchildren.
Since Collins was a young woman, she has immersed herself in every place she’s worked, starting with the Beverwyck, where she waited tables and tended bar. She also managed Justin’s for 11 years and helped Matt Baumgartner open Bombers.
Collins ran Tess’ Lark Tavern for six years until fire gutted the rear of the brick building in May 2010. When the Lark rose from the ashes, she always assumed she’d rise along with it. Then recently, she learned that someone else had applied for a liquor license for the premises under the name Flo’s Lark Tavern.
It was like a slap in the face for Collins.
“Everything that’s been done has been handled insensitively toward me,” says Collins. “For almost a year, I’ve kept my mouth shut. I’ve never stuck up for myself. The only reason I’ve spoken up is they were trying to steal my name. I bought the business and the name. I worked hard to make the brand work. I made the Lark Tavern busy and popular. It wasn’t so busy when I got there.”
Since autumn, Collins has been collaborating with Larry Davis of CommSoft and Tech Valley communications to operate McGeary’s Pub in Clinton Square. She says she’s been working 14- and 15-hour days to make ends meet.
“I’m going to become a partner here, but I’m starting from scratch,” she says. “I’ve lost everything I’ve ever worked for in my life. I lost all the history of everything that was in there. That neighborhood was mine for 25 years; I love the people that live there. They’re like family.”
Immediately after the fire, she worked for a spell at Taste, a South Pearl Street restaurant owned by Jim Linnan and his wife Maura Gannon. Linnan has known Collins for decades, ever since she was just starting out. Describing her as a “gracious, delightful presence,” he says, “She doesn’t have a mean spirit in her body.”
Linnan didn’t just employ her at his restaurant. He also happens to be her attorney. As soon as he found out that another prospective tenant had applied for permission to serve alcohol at 453 Madison Ave., he sent a cease and desist letter to the name and address that’s filed with the secretary of state—Flo’s Lark Tavern, LLC.
“It said stop using the name Lark Tavern or any iterations thereof for any commercial enterprise, period,” Linnan says. “It’s more than her livelihood. That building and that business was Tess Collins.”
Collins entered into a five-year lease for the Lark Tavern with landlord Michael DiNapoli on New Year’s Eve 2003. When time was up, she exercised her contractual option to stay another five years. During her tenure at the Lark, she poured more than $20,000 into revamping the kitchen and bathrooms and replacing basement plumbing, she says.
Collins’ liquor license for the property doesn’t expire until March 2012.
DiNapoli, who also owns DiNapoli Opticians in Bethlehem, says they had a good landlord-tenant relationship, and that he made structural repairs when asked. However, according to Linnan, there was tension between the two over “proper maintenance.”
When the Lark burned, Collins had two years left on her lease and an $80,000 bank loan to pay back. Since the morning of the fire, says Linnan, he and Jim Hacker, attorney for DiNapoli, have been exchanging “nasty letters.”
“A year after the fire, there has never been an offer or a discussion by Mr. DiNapoli as to rent,” Linnan says. “Now he’s trying to steal the name, the goodwill and the hard work that Tess put in there. It was close to being out of business when she took over. . . . Without ever talking to the current tenant, they just went and negotiated a deal with some total stranger. There’s a big impediment to calling it the Lark Tavern.”
Ryan Hancox, owner of Lou Bea’s pizzeria on Delaware Avenue, said late last week that he applied for the new liquor license under the assumption that Collins was out of the picture.
“I’m going to be the operator of the Lark Tavern,” he said. “We’ll have wonderful food and a large array of drinks. The building’s going to be significantly improved. Nobody’s sparing any expense in building it out properly. It’s being built to stand for the next 200 years.”
Hancox didn’t enter the picture until early this year. He says he “grew up” in the Lark; his parents were accountants there. His partner in the venture, Laura Bianchino, was former bartender at the Pearl Street Pub and Andy’s Sports Bar. It was a “natural fit,” he says.
Hancox studied finance at Siena College. When the Albany native was a junior, he successfully made an unsolicited offer to buy Lou Bea’s, where he’d been working. He was 21 when he closed the deal. His wife, Mary, currently operates “the city’s longest continuously run pizzeria,” which had its own fire in 2009.
“It is fully our intention to keep Lou Bea’s,” he says. “We’re considering looking for some other locations to augment our Delaware Avenue shop.”
Hancox, who is now a father and Albany Planning Board member, says he first considered buying the Lark when he was 25, but told himself he was too young. Instead, he became a financial advisor.
“As time went on, I reconsidered my decision,” he says. “I’ve had an interest in that business for some years now. The opportunity presented itself.”
Hancox says he’s not trying to harm anybody.
“I like Tess,” he says. “I respect her. I wish her nothing but well. This isn’t anything personal. My father always told me growing up, ‘Rise above it.’ I’m going to try and take the high road. I’m not somebody who feels that you have to lose for me to win.”
New York state won’t issue a new liquor license for the same location unless it can be proven that Collins’ lease was legally invalidated. And that hinges on whether or not the building was totaled in the fire. If it were completely destroyed, the landlord could terminate the lease. Otherwise, Collins could choose to stay, and DiNapoli would be obligated to make timely repairs.
The extent of damage to the Lark Tavern has been under contention. Linnan claims the front bar room sustained minimal damage from smoke and water.
“I was physically in the front of the building while the firemen were in the back,” he says. “The city did not declare it a total loss.”
In the rear two-thirds of the building, intense heat pulverized the mortar between bricks, DiNapoli said. Flames, smoke, soot and water caused extensive damage; the heat, plumbing and electrical systems were destroyed, and the back roof was lost, he says.
One thing both Collins and DiNapoli agree upon is the cause. The flames probably were sparked by an electrical fault, but the results of the investigation were never released.
“Nobody was quite as shocked as I was . . . standing on the corner on May 6, watching the building smolder,” says DiNapoli. “I was greatly relieved it was just a fire that burned a valuable building. Nobody got hurt. Nobody died. In the grand scheme of things, this is all fixable.”
In the aftermath, Collins says she spent thousands of dollars to clear out the mess. Then, according to Linnan, she was told that if she set foot on the property again, she would be arrested.
“I paid for the clean-up of the insides and contents of that building,” says Collins. “We planned on refurbishing with some of the fund-raising money.”
(Immediately after the fire, Matt Baumgartner began accepting donations for the Lark through his blog; shortly thereafter, a couple of benefit shows raised additional money.)
“I planned on going back up there,” she says. “I was told that I wasn’t allowed. They say the building isn’t repairable; then they turn around and rent it to someone else.”
DiNapoli says he discontinued Collins’ lease in order to rebuild.
“What my insurance gave me was only a fraction of what it cost me,” he says.
Ongoing renovations include new office and apartment space upstairs and a tavern downstairs, DiNapoli says.
“We’re probably 75-percent through with renovations,” DiNapoli says. “Our contractors have done a phenomenal job. We’re hoping for a fall opening.”
Linnan asserts that the landlord took advantage of the fire as an opportunity to wring more money out of the property.
The improved structure might fetch far more than the $6,000 a month Collins was paying in rent. According to Linnan, Collins was willing to negotiate over the amount, but she never had the opportunity.
DiNapoli informed Collins of the appraised value last summer, and asked if she wanted to purchase the building at that price. She offered an amount that was “significantly lower,” he says.
After she made a counter-offer, the only communication between Collins and DiNapoli was through their attorneys, says Linnan.
The dispute over the lease, the name, and the liquor license may soon be resolved, says DiNapoli.
“I’m under constraints of legal advisement not to speak, because we’re working toward a settlement,” he said on Monday. “The two parties are negotiating. The lawyers are talking at this point. Something’s on the table now. We’re real close to something positive happening. We re-proposed some things we proposed in the past, and this time, they seemed like they were amenable to having a discussion. We’re hoping this week or early next week, we’ll have some positive news to share.”
This week, Linnan says, he returned a phone call from Hacker.
“I spoke to him on Monday and told him my thoughts,” he says. “I’m hopeful that cooler heads can prevail. I’m encouraged that Mr. DiNapoli is encouraged.”
Linnan says that he anticipated a “big battle,” but qualified that adding, “A good attorney tries to keep his client out of court if possible.”
Linnan characterized Monday’s phone conversation as “an attempt to open negotiations or come to a final settlement, one or the other.”
“I gave him some alternatives and I gave him some proposals and I suggested that it was time to come to final conclusions,” says Linnan. “I think the fact that someone has tried to file a liquor license application using the name Lark Tavern brought everything to a head.”
The name Flo’s Lark Tavern is a nod to Florence Maugere, who ran the place with her husband John Michael Maugere from the early 1970s to the 1990s. They took a dilapidated building and turned it into a thriving business, according to DiNapoli.
“That family made the Lark Tavern the Lark Tavern,” he said. “They brought it back. They went through the ’70s ’80s and ’90s. They had it for 30 years. They worked it, polished it, cleaned it and took people in.”
When they passed away, their daughter Gail Maugere took over until Collins and a partner bought the business and the name Lark Tavern. It was already the Lark when DiNapoli’s family bought the property in the late 1960s, he said.
The building has housed a tavern ever since 1933—the year Prohibition was repealed. Before that, the structure, which dates back to about 1860, has served as a stable, a cinema and, the old-timers say, a firehouse.