Bear’s Lair Vendors Lose Out to Subway, Saigon Eats

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday February 18, 2010 - 08:45:00 AM

Strikes, occupations, petitions and sit-ins couldn’t save the two vendors fighting to hold on to their leases at UC Berkeley’s Bear’s Lair food court. 

The Store Operations Board of the student union’s administrative wing voted last month to start contract negotiations with Subway and Saigon Eats, which are expected to take over the two spots. 

When the board proposed a significant rent increase last summer, Ann Vu, who has owned and operated Healthy Heavenly Foods, a Vietnamese quick-service restaurant, at Bear’s Lair for the last two decades, declared that she would not be able to afford it. 

Vu refused to sign the new contract and was getting ready to leave last December but received an extension until May because the board was still figuring out the bidding process. 

Arnoldo Marquez, who owned Taqueria El Tacontento next to Vu’s stand, also opposed the doubled rent, and although he was more open to negotiating his lease terms with the university, he held off from signing a contract. 

Students intervened and asked the Store Operations Board to allow the two businesses to stay on. Protests were followed by the November occupation at Wheeler Hall, where along with requests for reduced fees, students called for a fair deal for Vu and Marquez. 

Supporters of the taqueria and Heavenly Foods charged that the Store Operations Board was ignoring independent businesses and wanted to replace them with corporate chains to make more money from the food court. 

But the board, part of the Associated Students of the University of California Auxiliary—which is in the middle of its largest fiscal crisis to date—argued that it merely wanted to bring rents up to current market standards in order to boost revenue. 

Christina Oatfield, an ASUC senator who helped Vu and Marquez, contends that when the board requested restaurants to send in their bids, “only one space was publicly available.” 

Oatfield described the entire process as “shady” and called for more transparency. She added that Marquez had been denied the right to bid for his space after the board had told him he could. 

Board chair Nish Rajan said that bids for Heavenly Foods had come in before Christmas last year. 

When Marquez declined to sign a contract over the holidays, “the board had to decide how to move forward on the space and likely begin a request for proposal process similar to the one for the space currently occupied by Healthy Heavenly Foods,” Rajan said. 

The winning bids went to Saigon Eats, another Vietnamese concession and a local Subway franchisee.  

“Contract negotiations are under way and we hope to achieve a favorable outcome,” said Rajan. 

Oatfield said that it was a shame UC was ousting local, family-owned businesses for Subway, especially since there was one right across the street. She criticized the “privatization” of the student union center with fast-food chains. 

Vu will be going out of business May 31. 

“Subway already walked through my space last week,” she said. “I might even have to close before May because my business is getting slower every day. I have already lost some of my loyal customers because they think I have already moved. I cannot take the stress anymore. After 20 years of running this business, I can write a book or make a movie about how difficult they have made it for me to survive in this country. I am very distressed.”