Restaurant Review - 5 seasons: The brewhouse and Goliath

The struggle with Sembler Co. at the Prado

Not long after the 5 Seasons brewhouse opened at the Prado in 2001, one of the customers came up with the perfect review: This is fine dining, in denim.

The pub not only features the celebrated beers of brew master Glen Sprouse, it has a menu unlike any other bar in Atlanta, with its emphasis on local produce and natural-fed meats.

But 5 Seasons owner Dennis Lange says he has lost more than $600,000 since the Sembler Company purchased the Prado two years ago and began a big-box redevelopment of the property that will bring in a Home Depot, Target and other retail businesses.

The issue? Parking and public access. "A representative from Sembler assured us they would take care of us," Lange says. "They started gobbling up spaces during construction. And, suddenly, there was no parking."

It's true, getting to 5 Seasons can be an adventure. There are normally three entrances to the Prado. With the construction, there is one. And it leads through a construction zone. For a while, according to Lange, Sembler offered a valet service that was so slow, customers got into arguments over who was first in line. Today, customers are supposed to park in a new parking deck several hundred feet away from the brew pub and walk across a pedestrian bridge.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Fulton County Superior Court, Lange accuses Sembler of deliberately trying to run him out of business. He says he is paying $17 per square foot on a long-term lease signed with the previous owner, while restaurants in the new development are being charged $37 per square foot in rent. "Sembler seeks to gain through might what it cannot gain through legal right – the 'free' eviction of Five Seasons from The Prado," the suit alleges. "Simply put, Five Seasons is worth more to Sembler 'dead than alive' because Five Seasons is 'in the way' of Sembler maximizing its profits at The Prado."

Joseph Wargo, the lawyer for 5 Seasons, says he had negotiated an agreement with Sembler earlier this year to pay the brew pub $260,000 and return 13 months of rent payments. "They've always recognized our business would be damaged during the redevelopment," Wargo says. "We had reached an agreement and we'd signed it and sent it to them. They sent us something back that cut the deal in half. It was shocking."

The lawsuit also alleges that Sembler has violated a Sandy Springs zoning ordinance that requires property owners to provide adequate off-street parking for restaurants. In addition, the brewhouse's lease stipulates that 5 Seasons will have access to 1,000 parking spaces.

A representative for Sembler didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Lange says the 5 Seasons at the Prado is on the brink of collapse. "If we'd gotten that deal, we'd still be struggling," he says. "But it would have kept us alive."

It's a stunning turn of events for a brewhouse that once thrived with customers and accolades. The New York Times described 5 Seasons as "remarkable." It was lauded in the Wall Street Journal and Southern Living. It has received both CL's Critics Pick and Readers Choice for Best Brew Pub in Atlanta.

The pub's roots can be traced to Phoenix Brewing, which Sprouse opened in 1996 at the Prado as one of the original brewhouses in Atlanta. When that venture failed, David Larkworthy – at the time a managing chef for the Buckhead Life restaurant group – teamed with Sprouse to open 5 Seasons. In the years that followed, Larkworthy began a unique alliance with farmers throughout the area, and long before "locavorism" was a catch phrase, 5 Seasons was supporting local farms and serving local produce wherever possible.

5 Seasons opened a second location in Alpharetta in 2007 (with former Dogwood Brewing Company owner Crawford Moran as the brew master), but it isn't making enough money to carry the slumping brewhouse at the Prado.

The financial problems are having repercussions in West Atlanta at the Brick Works development on Marietta Street, where 5 Seasons plans to open a third location. Even though the space for the brewhouse has been built, Lange says the opening is now on hold, and that's bad news for the businesses that have opened around the location in the Brick Works development.

"This is going to be devastating to some folks because everybody has been counting on 5 Seasons," says Kathy Boehmer, co-owner of the Toscano and Sons deli in the Brick Works. "We're doing OK, but some businesses here are really hurting. Everybody here has been counting on 5 Seasons to be the flagship to catapult our foot traffic."

Lange says he and Larkworthy made the decision to open the West Atlanta location based on promises from Sembler. "All that came to a screeching stop because, all of a sudden, we're not making money," he says.

The Prado location has been on the brink of closing for the past five months. The staff has been cut, Lange and Larkworthy have put their own cash into keeping it afloat, and suppliers have so far been forgiving. Wargo says it will take an infusion of at least $600,000 to keep the brewhouse open. "That's what it would take to get us over the hump," he says. "That's much less than what we've lost financially through this. That's basically enough to limp over the finish line."