Owners of Sazón, the Venezuelan restaurant on Spring Garden St., say they were driven out by pot-smoking neighbors
They said they stopped paying rent in protest. A judge found in favor of the landlord. They intend to operate a takeout-and-delivery business from a nearby ghost kitchen.
Sazón, the popular Venezuelan restaurant also known for its sideline of premium, house-made chocolate, will leave its home of 17 years at 10th and Spring Garden Streets on Sunday, Oct. 31 as it switches to a takeout-and-delivery business out of a nearby ghost kitchen.
The back story can be found in Philadelphia Municipal Court records: a dispute over what owners Judith Suzarra-Campbell and her husband, Robert Campbell, describe as upstairs neighbors’ “excessive pot-smoking and sloppy behavior,” which they allege the landlord had failed to stop. The couple withheld rent in protest, but lost their case in early October when a judge awarded the landlord a $40,000 judgment.
“I am sick about this,” said Suzarra-Campbell, who has been fielding calls and visits from customers since she posted a video on Instagram last weekend about the impending departure from their cheery BYOB.
She and her husband met while working out in a gym in Caracas. They moved to his native Philadelphia and opened Sazón in November 2004 to showcase her healthful home cooking. Robert Campbell, a former semipro mountain biker, bills himself as the Chocolate Alchemist, creating bean-to-bar truffles and pouring varieties of intense drinking chocolate.
In an interview, Suzarra-Campbell said the trouble started last fall. With the windows closed, “we could not handle the smell of smoke inside the restaurant,” she said. “It was disgusting. We talked to the landlord. He didn’t do anything.” They kept doors open and ran fans.
The court file shows text messages describing the couple’s frustration. In one message in December 2020, the landlord, Alexandros Apsis, replied: “I went to her apartment the other day it smells like some one smoke but nothing like you describe. And is very clean and organized, I don’t know what to say! I’m going to tell her again!!”
Suzarra-Campbell said the couple called the police but nothing could be done. She said that during one visit, “an officer said, ‘Stop paying the rent.’”
Apsis filed suit for eviction in April 2021. The couple counterclaimed that they had incurred “substantial damages,” including lost profit due to not being able to seat patrons due to the odor, increased utility bills due to their efforts to mitigate the odor, and lost productivity of their employees due to their exposure to the odor and second-hand smoke exposure. They alleged that damages totaled $65,000 and sought an offset against the rent. Apsis did not respond to a request for comment through his attorney.
“I did everything to please my customers,” Suzarra-Campbell said.
They are calling their next business Sazón 2 Go, and it will open Nov. 4 at 1308 W. Girard Ave., part of a building full of takeout and delivery businesses. She said her husband had been making extra chocolate recently because the new kitchen does not have room for it. They also will continue catering and do outdoor events through Sisterly Love Food Fair, Riverwards Produce, and Now and Then Marketplace.
“We’re two strong people,” she said. “We built a community and we will survive.”