EAST VILLAGE — The proprietors of a beloved neighborhood dive bar are struggling to reopen amidst a legal battle with a notorious bar magnate, who they say padlocked the premises and yanked their liquor license after going back on a purchase agreement.
Husband and wife bar owners Leroy “Big Lee” and Maria "Sasha" Lloyd had been running their dive The Hard Swallow at 140 First Ave. between Eighth and Ninth streets for more than a year when they found themselves locked out of the space and stripped of a liquor license, forcing them to shutter the bar.
"We're not doing good. I actually have to start picking up a couple of bouncer shifts every now and then just to make ends meet," said Leroy.
"We have two kids — it's hard. We still have our home life," Maria added.
Now months out of business and short thousands of dollars, they are suing former operators Charmion Raymond and Thomas McNeil, a famed “dive bar mogul” responsible for a slew of beloved Manhattan honky-tonks, including local legend Village Idiot and Doc Holliday’s.
The tussle has left the dive bar world torn, said the Lloyds, noting McNeil is a huge presence in their industry of unpretentious watering holes with cheap booze.
“There are some people in this whole dive bar circuit that have a lot of love for him, and they have a lot of love for me, so it’s a weird civil war,” Leroy said.
“I’m like, ‘This guy robbed me and I’m just a working guy. I am not Donald Trump.’”
According to a complaint, the Lloyds in July 2015 entered a purchase and sub-lease agreement with Raymond and McNeil to take over the space, formerly home to dives Spanky and Darla’s and Cheap Shots, which the city shuttered in 2010 due to illegal activities.
Per the agreement, the Lloyds paid weekly installments of $3,500, which included rent due under the sub-lease and payments towards the company’s agreed-upon purchase price of $150,000.
In March 2016, Raymond and McNeil demanded an extra $50,000 on top of the usual installments and the Lloyds “uncomfortably” coughed up $30,000, the complaint states.
That fall, Raymond demanded the remaining balance due under the agreement be paid all at once — when the Lloyds refused, McNeil snatched the liquor license that was displayed in the space and Raymond padlocked the premises to keep the Lloyds out, declaring them to be in “default,” according to the complaint.
McNeil and Raymond have not yet responded to the Lloyds' complaint, and could not be reached for comment.
The Lloyds launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for legal fees in November when they took Raymond and McNeil to court — loyal patrons of the dive raised more than $3,000.
The Lloyds in December successfully sued Raymond and McNeil to regain entry to the bar, according to a court order. They briefly reopened, but the liquor license has since been deactivated, leaving them out of business until they get another one from the State Liquor Authority.
On top of the lost business revenue, the Lloyds said they found out that money they had been paying McNeil and Raymond under the sub-lease agreement, which was supposed to go to the property's landlord, had been withheld. McNeil and Raymond were also $54,000 in debt to the landlord in summer 2015 while handing over the keys to the bar, according to the Lloyds' new lawsuit, which was filed in a state supreme court in January.
The lawsuit demands roughly $450,000 in damages — including $225,000 in punitive damages to "punish" McNeil and Raymond for their "malice" and interference with the Lloyds' right to the bar.
This is not the first time Raymond and McNeil have been sued in recent months. Three employees of another bar owned by the duo, the Patriot Saloon in TriBeCa, last year successfully sued the proprietors for withholding overtime wages, court documents show.
In December, within days of the court order permitting the Lloyds re-entry to the Hard Swallow, McNeil and Raymond reached a settlement agreement with the disgruntled saloon employees and will pay a total of $95,000 in installments.
The Lloyds, meanwhile, are making slow but steady headway in reopening their bar — the local community board's SLA subcommittee recently voted to recommend the authority grant the husband and wife a liquor license. The SLA will determine whether they are granted the license within the coming months.
If all goes according to plan, the Lloyds hope to have the dive up and running again by the summer. Neighbors frequently stop by to ask when the bar will make a comeback — what will be the bar's "season two," said Leroy — and loyal bar employees are eagerly waiting to return to work.
"We've got a few of them that have really bled with us, and they're holding on and waiting," said Maria.