A dispute over a leaky roof has made finding authentic south-of-the border cuisine considerably more difficult for west Berkeley residents and has roused the mayor while forcing at least one single mother to lose her livelihood.
Berkeley police officers on Tuesday served Pepito’s Deli owners an eviction notice, and police and sheriff’s deputies escorted employees out. On Wednesday a barbed wire fence was erected around the deli at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Allston Way.
The deli’s owner, Maria Magana who has a 17-year-old daughter, said she refused to pay rent in April after landlords Leo and Helena Chen, of San Francisco did not repay her the money she gave them for a new roof. Magana said the Chens asked her to pay for the $10,000 repair herself and promised to reimburse her with interest.
The Chen’s son, Nelson, would not comment on specifics of the case but said that Magana’s claims are “untrue, unrealistic and blown out of proportion.”
“I think she feels that she’s been victimized and it’s not true,” he said.
After Magana withheld the $3,300 monthly rent – $300 more than what she said is on her lease – the Chens filed a complaint with the Alameda Superior Court.
On Tuesday, a judge denied Magana a 30-day extension of her eviction.
Magana said she was “heartbroken.”
“I couldn’t believe our system wouldn’t protect small businesses that are providing jobs for people and helping the community,” she said.
Standing outside the closed business with her one-and-a-half year old daughter, local resident Leticia Maciel said she was stunned to find the business that she has frequented for 15 years closed.
“Now where can we go?” Maciel said, throwing her hands in the air. “It’s the only Mexican food here.”
Gordon Choyce of Jubilee Restoration, a nearby nonprofit organization, said the problems between Magana and the landlord had gotten so bad that Magana was seriously considering relocating her business. Magana had discussed with him the possibility of moving to a mixed-use site being built at 2700 San Pablo Ave.
Local residents lamented the loss of a neighborhood fixture. Long lines frequently greeted hungry patrons at lunchtime. The Latino community was particularly fond of the business because a portion of the eatery carried hard-to-find Mexican specialty groceries and magazines.
Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean expressed sympathy. She said Magana was the victim of “bad legal advice” and emphasized that Magana is a single mother who often worked late at night to keep her business running smoothly.
Dean said she tried to stave off the eviction by making calls over the weekend to judges, attorneys and the landlords on Magana’s behalf. Unfortunately, Dean said, she was not able to reach an agreement that would save the business.
“It’s a crying shame,” she said. “This is the kind of minority-owned business we want to protect.”
Henk Boverhuis of Britalia, Ltd., a nearby auto shop, said that Magana was a popular business owner and “is greatly missed in the neighborhood.”
But the closure of the deli struck Boverhuis on a more personal level.
“I’m hungry,” he said.