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Rent Hike Prompts Bear’s Lair Departure

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday July 23, 2009 - 09:36:00 AM

Two of the three food vendors at the Bear’s Lair Food Court have accepted a new lease agreement and will stay on. The third, Healthy Heavenly Foods, rejected the offer and plans to move out by December. 

The Store Operations Board of UC Berkeley’s cash-strapped Associated Students of the University of California Auxiliary recently proposed raising rents for the vendors in order to boost the ASUC’s revenue. 

The board also asked for store improvements and mandated that the vendors produce $400,000 in annual sales by the end of their two-year lease. At least two of the vendors protested, arguing that it was impossible for small family-owned businesses to pay more rent or meet the board’s other conditions.  

A group of students and community members have supported the vendors, asking the university to help support independent businesses rather than drive them out amid a difficult economy. 

At a July 16 Store Operations Board meeting, Arnoldo Marquez, owner of Taqueria Tacontento, asked the board for a longer lease so that he could improve sales after investing in upgrades for his shop. 

Marquez said he was concerned that the auxiliary’s plans to renovate Lower Sproul would interfere with his business and drive his customers elsewhere. 

Although boardmembers did not agree to Marquez’ request for a five-year lease, they agreed to grant the vendors an extension to meet the new sales target in the event their businesses were affected by construction. 

They also agreed to let the vendors pay just half of their rent for the months of June, July, December and January because most students are away on vacation during that time and business is usually pretty slow. 

Both Marquez and Ann Vu, who has owned Healthy Heavenly Foods at the food court for the last 20 years, asked the board for more time to come to a decision about the lease agreement. 

Dr. Nad Permaul, executive director of the ASUC Auxiliary, said that the Store Operations Board had given the vendors more than enough time to make up their minds, but that they had missed a few deadlines. 

“The board has given them support and assistance,” he said. “There has never been a situation when the vendors have never been directly spoken to. They know what’s going on.” 

Vu said unless someone agreed to partner with her to save Healthy Heavenly Foods, she would have to start looking for a new job in December. 

“I cannot do it alone—it’s too much for me,” she said. “It will be too hard for me to take over a two-year lease. I don’t know how the construction will affect my business or if I can earn $400,000 in two years. I don’t think next year will be good. Times are tough.” 

Vu said her experiences with the ASUC Auxiliary over the lease agreement had left her frustrated. 

“My English is not very good and it was really difficult to deal with them,” she said. “It’s too stressful.” 

Joshua G. Genser, an attorney who is advising Vu on the issue, suggested that this could be a good opportunity for Vu to take her business elsewhere. 

“Rents are down in other places, she may be able to get another restaurant space on Telegraph for less money,” he said. “What I don’t get is why the university is raising rents during a recession in the first place.” 

ASUC Chair Will Smelko said the rent hike had been fair. 

“For many years, the ASUC has been pricing rents at far below the market value for that space,” he said. “Given the current economic crisis and the across-the-board cuts that were made to our vital student groups last year, the board has agreed it is time to update our rent agreements to be in line with current standards.”   

Marquez said he had no choice but to accept the new contract. 

“I have to try, my business is all I have,” he said. “I know the board will help me during the construction, but my customers will not wait for me to reopen. They will go somewhere else. The board is asking for too much and not giving us anything.”