Two weeks ago, for the second time in a year, the Berkeley Police Department and city officials sent out a letter to 400 restaurants in Berkeley, warning them against holding late night parties, which have resulted in fights, gunfire and unruly crowds.
Gregory Daniel, the city’s Code Enforcement Officer, said a similar letter had been sent to 396 restaurants last October in response to a series of parties that had ended with people being arrested for drinking on the streets, violating the noise ordinance or simply making a nuisance of themselves on public property.
Daniel said that since July 2007, Berkeley police had responded to eight unauthorized parties or after-hours activities at Berkeley restaurants, organized by party promoter Eugene Cockerham, who promised unsuspecting restaurateurs a lot of money under the false pretense of renting out space for small private parties.
When 10 police officers from Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office were required to break up a fight outside Priya Indian Cuisine on San Pablo Avenue in August—which ended with hundreds of young people spilling out onto the street and shots being fired in the air—city officials decided to issue a warning to local restaurants to avoid dealing with a certain party promoter, seemingly referring to Cockerham, although not naming him directly.
Parvata Seelam, who owns Priya, said Cockerham had cheated him by saying he was hosting a birthday party for 50 guests.
“I know my capacity is 49 people, so one more was OK,” he said. “But after 9 p.m. the number grew to 60, then 100, and then 400. The organizers were selling tickets outside, and people were dancing inside, I am in business for 25 years, and I have never had a problem before. This is the first time and the last time. I have learned my lesson.”
Most restaurant owners in Berkeley said they had never encountered disruptive behavior at their restaurants simply because they did not rent out space to large crowds.
“We have personally never been approached and don’t have the space for something like that,” said Natalie Kniess of Bistro Liaison on Shattuck Avenue. “Restaurants with large banquet rooms may be more susceptible to these shenanigans. But it’s good that the city is getting the word out about this kind of deceptive behavior and event planning. Restaurants should know that it’s illegal.”
Kneiss recently co-founded the Berkeley Restaurant Alliance with six other local restaurants. The group hopes to address concerns city officials might have about restaurant operations.
Rajen Thapa, who owns Taste of the Himalayas on Shattuck Avenue and Namaste on Telegraph Avenue, said he was strict about ending fundraisers and private parties at his restaurant by 10 p.m.
“And we never take more people than what is allowed within our capacity,” said Thapa, who received the letter from the city last Friday. “When there is a big crowd, people will eventually grab a bottle of beer and hang outside. That doesn’t make our restaurant look too good.”
The “citation warning” issued by Daniel states that city officials had received numerous complaints about “food service establishments” operating as “entertainment establishments” in violation of the Berkeley Municipal Code.
“Using your building and property in a manner not consistent with local laws will result in administrative citations up to $1,000 per day per violation,” Daniel wrote. “These citations will be issued to you on a weekly basis by personal service. ... It is your responsibility to ensure that your business and property are being used in accordance with Berkeley laws.”
The letter adds that rowdy parties could be labeled a nuisance subject to abatement under city law and recommended restaurant owners contact the city’s Code Enforcement Unit if they were approached by people looking to rent space for private parties or after-hour events.
“We want restaurants to keep an eye out for this person, question what he’s doing,” Daniel said. “He’s obviously creating a problem. This letter is a heads-up, a warning for businesses. The bottom line is it’s your business and you are accountable for it. If you choose to do business with the wrong person, you will have to pay the penalty, and it could be as much as $5,000.”
Although most restaurant owners support the city’s efforts to send out a letter to curb illegal parties, some city officials said they had been put off by its tone.
“It sounds like a scare tactic,” said councilmember Kriss Worthington. “There are sizable parties celebrating weddings, birthdays and graduations everyday in Berkeley. It’s great to inform people about this issue but I think it’s the wrong tone. A letter saying that ‘it’s sad that happened and that we want to help you’ would have served better. The city is already threatening to charge restaurant owners a fee for serving wine and beer to subsidize liquor store problems. A lot of people come to Berkeley because of the foodie culture—we should be welcoming restaurants. Just because something happened at one place doesn’t mean we have to scare everyone else.”
According to authorities, fewer than 10 businesses in Berkeley have permits that would allow them to rent out their establishments for private events.
“I know that 90 percent of restaurants downtown are of a fairly small size and they won’t be having big parties,” said Deborah Badhia of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “We have music venues and clubs but I haven’t heard of any problems there. However, many people are vulnerable to this kind of deception, so it’s important to have your ears and eyes open.”
Officer Andrew Frankel, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, said that incidents like the one at Priya were not common due to recent efforts by city officials to curb out of control parties
“We have routinely responded to complaints about public drunkenness and loud noise near the campus, but it’s very rare that we come across parties that result in shots being fired,” he said.