Bear’s Lair Food Court Vendors Strike to Protest Rent Increases

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 19, 2009 - 09:34:00 AM
Ann Vu protests her rent increase in front of Sproul Plaza Wednesday, right before students board the bus to go the regent's meeting at UCLA.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Ann Vu protests her rent increase in front of Sproul Plaza Wednesday, right before students board the bus to go the regent's meeting at UCLA.

UC Berkeley students aren’t the only ones who went on strike this week.  

Two of the three Bear’s Lair food court vendors, disgruntled by the student union administration’s plans to double their rent, planned to close shop the entire week because they want to negotiate the terms of their contract.  

The vendors have been fighting over lease negotiations with the Associated Students of the University of California Auxiliary Store Operations Board since summer, when the board proposed a rent increase to boost flagging revenue and revitalize Lower Sproul Plaza.  

The two vendors have also expressed concerns about the length of the lease, terms for extensions and the number of months of partial payment when school is out.  

Both ASUC Auxiliary Director Dr. Nadesan Permaul and Store Operations Board Chair Nish Rajan have maintained that the increase is on par with current market rates.  

Ann Vu, proprietor of Healthy Heavenly Foods, a Vietnamese concession stall at Bear’s Lair, said it was impossible for her to meet the rent hike, and she backed out of the contract in August.  

The board gave Vu an extension last month until May 2010 because it was taking a long time to prepare a request for proposal.  

“It’s not a fair contract for me and Arnoldo,” Vu told the Planet. “Monday we closed our business and put up a sign. We hope to let the students know what’s going on.”  

Arnoldo Marquez, who runs Tacqueria Tacontento next to Vu’s restaurant, agreed to the terms of the new contract but has refrained from signing it so far.  

Vu, who has been at the food court for 20 years, said that she was angry the board was giving preferential treatment to Tully’s Coffee by offering it space on campus at a lower rate.  

“Tully’s contract was negotiated and approved by the board in advance of the terms offered to the food court vendors,” Permaul said in a statement to the Planet. “All leases are discrete and distinct, based on a variety of factors, costs of improvements, risk, location, and other conditions. Tully’s lease was approved just as the economy crashed, they paid for substantial improvements to the location to make it meet the campus requirements, and they were assuming a risk in a new business location that was untested.” [See Permaul’s commentary on the subject, Page 10.] 

Permaul said the board voted to approve the terms of Tully’s contract unanimously on Sept. 23, 2008.   

He said that about seven months later all the vendors spoke to the board and “insisted they would be happy to make significant physical improvements and pay larger rents to remain in their locations.”  

“Based on those promises,” Permaul said, the board changed its earlier decision to go out for bids on all the spaces, instead resolving to negotiate new terms for extending the vendors’ leases.  

He added that both Vu and Marquez had amenities such as ovens and hoods which allowed them to cook on site, which resulted in higher utility bills than Coffee Spot or Tully’s, which are both quick service.  

“These critical amenities also make their sites much more attractive in the market place,” Permaul said. “A recent proposed vendor, who did not get board approval, was willing to pay almost $1,000,000 for physical improvements to get similar conditions for their proposed site.”  

Vu said that unless the board agreed to begin negotiations, they would strike again. 

“This is our way of showing we support the students,” said Marquez. 

The board gave Marquez a week’s extension Nov. 9 for signing his lease.  

“I cannot make that kind of a contract,” Marquez said. “That’s why I asked for an extension. I am not ready.”  

Permaul said that the third vendor, Coffee Spot, has signed the lease, whose terms include requiring the vendors to carry out upgrades and improvements to their store.  

“We are working with the Coffee Spot on the physical improvements,” Permaul said. “The owner has expressed nothing but satisfaction with the new lease and our relationship. Marquez, who accepted the terms in June, had a full month to express his concerns and did not. Then, yesterday two days before his deadline to sign, comes an announcement of a strike in conjunction with the vendor [Vu] who did not accept the board's offer in June, and was aware that by doing so she had forfeited her right to an extension.”  

UC Berkeley senior Matt Marks, who has been supporting the vendors on the lease issue, showed up during the strike Monday with banners supporting the vendors. 

“I think a strike is a great idea, especially since this week students are striking to protect higher education,” Marks said. “Arnoldo and Ann are protesting to keep prices from going up at the Bear’s Lair. There will be no business as usual.”  

UC Berkeley students embarked on a “no business as usual” three-day strike Wednesday to protest the state budget cuts to public education, fee hikes and furloughs.  

Marquez and Vu said they already increased food prices by 50 cents amid a tough economy.  

“The ASUC Auxiliary has not taken students’ input into consideration,” Marks said. “I think these vendors are paying fair market rate. The ASUC needs more revenue, but they are not taking anything else into consideration. They have given Tully’s a smaller rent. I think they should give Ann and Arnoldo a gradual rent increase instead of doubling their rent at once. It’s an invitation to leave, not an offer to stay.”  

Students have spoken out in support of the vendors at Store Operations Board meetings, urging a fair contract.