A POPULAR Italian restaurant has shut down after a dispute between the landlord and the business owners.

The owners of Il Torrente, in Benfleet High Street, said they were “floored” to discover their landlord, Maggie Barton, had changed the locks after they were late paying their rent.

Sarah Mahdavian, 30, and her partner Hossein Mahdavian, 41, opened Il Torrente late last year and invested £150,000 to refurbish the restaurant.

Miss Mahdavian, of Thundersley Park Road, Benfleet, said: “The bookkeeper called us up asking when the rent would be paid and then Maggie phoned up, we said we were getting the rent to her but she said no, it’s too late. We thought she was joking at first and then she said she had changed the locks.

“We were completely gobsmacked and went from crying to laughing. We couldn’t believe it.”

The couple were due to pay their quarterly rent of £6,000 on September 30, but fell behind following a house move.

Miss Mahdavian said: “We moved from Canvey to Benfleet in August to make sure we were in the catchment area for King John School for my son.

“To secure the house, we couldn’t use the restaurant’s accounts for referencing checks because it’s been open less than a year, so we paid six months rent up front with all the fees, which cost us £9,000.

“We then had a VAT return and rent due and had about £20,000 of bills that month and we hadn’t heard a thing from Maggie. She hadn’t called us and still hasn’t asked us for the money.

“All she seems to want is the restaurant back.

“Everyone is in shock because of it. We were absolutely floored and couldn’t even speak.

“We’ve put everything into this business. If we lose it, we lose everything. We can’t just walk away from it.”

The couple are considering taking legal action after being forced to cancel bookings for this week and having to turn 80 phone bookings away.

Building’s owner claims lease was breached

MAGGIE Barton, who owns the building and used to run the successful Fish Market restaurant on the same site, says she plans to lease the property out again as a restaurant and has sought legal advice over the situation.

Mrs Barton, 65, of Rayleigh Road, Hadleigh, said: “On solicitor’s advice we foreclosed. We emailed them and said the rent’s three weeks late, is there a reason?

They replied saying they would pay within three or four weeks. There has been no phone call and no arguments.”

Mrs Barton says a number of changes made to the inside of the restaurant and the late rent breached the couple’s 15-year lease.

She said: “It contravenes the lease. I didn’t have to give them notice.”