84ºF

Customer leaves $550 tip at popular Cocoa Village restaurant that could be closing

30 people could be out of work, owner said

(Credit: Rob Landers/Florida Today)
(Credit: Rob Landers/Florida Today)

Murdock’s Southern Bistro in Cocoa Village may close this weekend after more than 18 years anchoring the corner of Brevard and Maryland avenues, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.

The threat of closure comes after the latest volley in a lease dispute that has gone on almost since the business opened, said owner Stevie Whitaker.

Whitaker hopes to find a resolution that will keep the restaurant operating, but she fears the doors to Murdock's could be closed as early as Sunday.

As word got out on social media Thursday afternoon, regulars stopped in and passersby shouted words of encouragement. One customer left the staff a $550 tip on a $30 check, to be split among the servers working that day. Whitaker said closing could put 30 people out of work.

Aleck Greenwood, owner of the building, said he was surprised by social media posts saying Murdocks would close. He said as far as he knew, his attorney was working with Whitaker's attorney to negotiate a new lease.

"There was no response to the offer, no counter offer," he said.

Greenwood said there still is the potential to reach an agreement that would keep Murdock's open, but he was advised by his attorney to issue the writ of eviction as a step to protect himself.

Whitaker opened the business — known for its nightly music, hearty food and edgy attitude — in 2001. Almost from the beginning, relations between Whitaker and the property owner soured.

Court records show an eviction attempt in 2008 ended with a judgment in Whitaker’s favor.

Whitaker said the eviction attempt was made when she installed a hood in the restaurant kitchen. Greenwood said she made unauthorized alterations to the building.

The 18th Circuit Court of Brevard County allowed Whitaker to remain in the building stating:

“... The Court is mindful that under Florida law eviction of a commercial tenant from a thriving business is not favored when the alleged default is for something other than financially related matters, clearly the case here.”

Now, according to Whitaker, a forgotten signature on rent check is at issue. Whitaker said she delivered the February rent check to Greenwood's attorney's office in Melbourne on Jan. 30, two days early.

She remembers being flustered because her grandchild was having surgery at Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center the same day. She didn’t realize the check didn’t have a signature. Without a signature, the check wasn’t valid and Whitaker was considered late on her rent.

According to a Final Notice of Eviction filed in 18th Judicial Circuit of Brevard on Feb. 18, Whitaker is to be removed from the property because of failure to pay rent.

In the notice, it states that Whitaker was required to pay her rent directly to Greenwood’s attorney, the result of a court order from Oct. 25, 2016. Rent would be considered late if it was not received on the first day of each month. It would be considered in default if not received with a late fee by the close of business on the sixth day of each month.

Greenwood's attorney held the check until Feb. 14, according to court documents. The missing signature wasn't discovered until that time.

Whitaker brought in a second check, including late fees, after she found out about the error. On Feb. 17, Whitaker’s attorney filed a response to an affidavit for non-payment of rent.

"The lack of signature ... was inadvertent and is simply excusable neglect," according to the Feb. 17 court document, which also asked that the court deny Greenwood's attempt to evict Whitaker.

However, the final judgement filed on Feb. 18 ruled in favor of Greenwood, giving him the right to recover the property "upon rendition of this judgment, or as soon thereafter as practicable ..."

"I have paid my rent every month for 18 and a half years," Whitaker said. "And because it was an unsigned check, it put me in default, and it was nothing more than just a simple human mistake."

Greenwood said if no agreement can be reached between the two parties, he has experienced restaurateurs waiting to take over the building.

"This is a prime location right in the heart of the Village," he said. It's a historic building, originally the site of Murdock's grocery store. It now features windows and other fixtures from the Brevard Hotel, which once occupied a spot on the Indian River behind the Murdock's location.

Whitaker said the business was doing well, bringing in $2.2 million last year. She already was preparing to move to another location in 18 months when her lease was up. Now she said she has the opportunity to purchase another property in Cocoa Village and hopes to have that restaurant up and running as quickly as possible.