For over 20 years three owner-operated businesses have served students in the Bear’s Lair Food Court, in the Student Union on UC Berkeley’s campus. Haitham Alloun is a Palestinian immigrant who came to UC Berkeley in 1977 as an international student, only to discontinue his studies due to the fact that he had to work long hours to support himself and his family. He owns The Coffee Spot. Ann Vu came to this country from Vietnam, and has succeeded in building her business up over two decades to become a model for many students on campus from Southeast Asia, and especially women of color. Ann owns the Vietnamese restaurant, Foods.Healthy Heavenly Foods. Arnoldo Marquez has operated El Taqueria Tacontento for five years after purchasing the business from his uncle who owned the business for 15 years before. Throughout this time students have been provided with quality food at low cost in a quick and friendly manner.
Last spring, the ASUC Auxiliary and the Store Operations Board—composed of students, administrators, and faculty—decided to put these spaces up for a Request for Proposal (RFP) process where the businesses would have to compete on the open market to continue to do business at their respective locations. Due to a well-researched report that advocated for the businesses to remain—and proved much of the information at hand to be false—as well as widespread student uproar with the decision, the Board instead chose to offer contracts to the businesses. However, what has come from the contracts is blatantly unequal compared to all other contracts in the Student Union, and does not take into account the specific interests of the student body or the needs of the business owners themselves.
The board has more than doubled the rent on two of the three businesses in the middle of this economic crisis, while making concessions to all other businesses on campus that have suffered through these hard times. While students emphasized low prices, unique and under-represented cultures, and improved ambience in the Bear’s Lair Food Court, the Board has instead imposed rents that will raise prices, advocated for “standardizing the fronts” of businesses and following “trends in the industry,” and claimed that the Board would not, and did not want the vendors to invest in the space because of the vague possibility of renovations sometime in the future.
At this same time the Board has negotiated a long-term lease with Tully’s Coffee, the second corporation to come to the Student Union at UC Berkeley. Tully’s received a longer lease, lower rent, fewer requirements—in terms of organic options, local produce, revenue sharing—protection from competition, and rights to future coffee spaces on campus. Tully’s Coffee is touted as a solution to the economic crisis, while the Bear’s Lair Food Court vendors have been intentionally misrepresented as a “subsidy.” The facts speak otherwise. The Bear’s Lair Food Court vendors will pay more total, and more per square foot than Tully’s Coffee. While the vendors were accused time and time again over the last five years of not paying market rate, a report in 2007 stated that the vendors paid a “strong market rate.” The vendors also each pay far more in common and maintenance fees—five times what Tully’s pays—thus contributing to the salaries of custodial employees and paying their fair share into the economic engine that is UC Berkeley. While the Bear’s Lair Food Court vendors have paid, and will continue to pay their fair share, Tully’s Coffee has been made a recipient of corporate welfare.
We have a case where the Chancellor’s appointed man, ASUC Auxiliary Director Nadesan Permaul, has manipulated students and faculty on the Store Operations Board through false information, and withholding important additional information. The members of the Board do not have the time to acquire all the pertinent information, and rely on the Director to supply them with all necessary information so that the individuals can make an informed choice that best serves the student body. What is needed is a review of all information provided to the Board concerning the Bear’s Lair Food Court, an explanation for why information that was false was continuously provided, as well as why information that contradicted previous statements was never provided to the Board.
More importantly, what is needed is a transparent process that results in fair and equal treatment of the Bear’s Lair Food Court vendors as compared with other businesses, both small and corporate, in the Student Union. The businesses in the Bear’s Lair Food Court should pay the same amount per square foot as their corporate competition upstairs, and be given a lease of equal length. It is hypocritical to suggest that these vendors who have a long history of providing good service not be treated fairly and equitably, while there is an attempt to replace them with corporate vendors with unequal favorable treatment. Fairness and transparency are required to ensure that these hard working blue-collar minority vendors with a long-time record of serving our diverse student body, staff and stakeholders are allowed to continue to do so with a fair and equitable contract. This is the only outcome that will satisfy the students on this campus concerned with low prices, diversity, and a quality educational experience that these three vendors have worked so hard to do.
Matt Marks is an undergraduate student in his last semester at UC Berkeley.