ANN ARBOR - It may fall on April Fools' Day, but the reopening of Bandito's is no joke.
The beloved Tex-Mex restaurant is opening its doors on April 1 at 10 a.m. at its new location at 3395 Plymouth Road, where Olga's Kitchen used to be.
But while loyal customers have taken to social media to celebrate the reopening of the mom and pop restaurant after a 19-month closure, owner Kanwar Sandhanwalia described the ordeal as a total nightmare.
Notification of closure
It started in June 2017 when Bandito's was still located at 216 S. 4th Avenue. Sandhanwalia was notified by his landlord David Ebner of Barbat Holdings, LLC that he would have to close the restaurant for a few hours to allow for some new construction work on the building. Developer Joe Barbat had purchased the building to transform it into apartments under the name Montgomery Houze.
Sandhanwalia was eventually told he would have to close for three months, and was put in touch with Carlos Hesano, one of the building's owners and developers.
"He had said, 'We’re going to close you down for three months starting Aug. 1, 2017,'" said Sandhanwalia. "My lease was until Aug. 2018, so I had another year on my lease. I said, 'Am I going to get compensated?' They agreed on $10,000 (a month), which barely paid my employees and some bills. So I hired an attorney, they came on Aug. 1 to knock on my door saying, 'You need to evacuate.' And I said, 'We haven’t even signed anything yet.' But I gave them the benefit of the doubt. That’s the last person I’ll ever give the benefit of the doubt to in my life."
The construction that needed to be done in his space involved installing several new foundation pillars. Sandhanwalia said the restaurant had to be completely gutted.
After three months had passed, he went back to his landlord. "In November 2017, I had $30,000 and was ready to open," said Sandhanwalia. He was told he couldn't open yet and would be given another check for $5,000 in December. "It was February or March (until I saw the check). It took them that long to even decide. But then in the contract, my addendum said that I’ll be responsible for all upgrades per city requirements. So that means I have to rebuild the whole restaurant myself. So I said, 'You can just keep the $5,000.' I didn’t even go back."
Sandhanwalia said he lost his entire life savings because he's been paying his employees each month during the closure.
"I lost about $450,000 of my life savings," he said. "It’s all gone. I’m paying my employees. I promised I would pay them because they have kids, too. I just didn’t think it was going to take this long."
He said his equipment was damaged in his old space because it was stored improperly at the construction site on S. 4th Avenue.
"I had to buy all new equipment because my equipment got ruined because they stored it in a so-called 'green space,'" he said. "Everything was falling on top of my equipment."
In order to continue paying his employees, he took on several jobs to make ends meet.
"I was driving Lyft, I was just trying to survive taking odd jobs," he said. "Because they said, 'Next month, no, next month,' and I thought, who was going to hire me for 30 days? Last March they said, 'We're going to open you up.' Nothing. It’s empty now. No one’s going to rent it. They want more money than I was paying. It’s a ridiculous amount. I don’t know how they sleep at night but I guess they do."
One day Sandhanwalia saw that the space at the Plymouth Green Crossings Shopping Center was available and quickly moved to secure it.
Sandhanwalia estimates he spent $300,000 renovating his new location, including a new kitchen.
His wife, who's also an artist, has hand-painted the walls and created artwork throughout the space.
A family legacy in Ann Arbor
Sandhanwalia came to the U.S. from India in 1980 with his parents, and grew up spending time in his aunt's Indian restaurant in Ann Arbor.
"My aunt owns Raja Rani," he said. "It used to be where the U of M Titanic building is, that’s where Raja Rani started in 1968 and then they moved to William and Division. The whole family worked there and that’s where I learned everything about the restaurant business, customer service and how to keep people happy."
Bandito's had been open since 1986 on S. 4th Avenue and when its owners announced they were selling it, Sandhanwalia's family saw an opportunity.
"In 1991, Bandito’s was on sale and we bought it," he said. "We remodeled it and tripled sales."
As for his customers, Sandhanwalia said they have been inundating him with messages during the closure asking when he would be reopening.
"My customers have been texting me, emailing me, calling me," he said. "They’re ready to come back."
Bandito's will be open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
For more information, visit www.banditosmi.com.
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