Nosh

From mom-and-pops to mini-chains

Bongo Burger and Brazil Cafe are two of Berkeley's family-owned mini-chains.

By Jessica Kwong

When Berkeley folk think food — even in the order of grab-and-go — their palates usually paint a picture of small, family-owned places unique to the city’s borders.

Favoring independent, locally owned businesses has been characteristic of the city since its inception and through its evolution, according to the city’s economic development project coordinator Dave Fogarty.

“Some of the chains that have attempted to come into Berkeley have really not been successful and they decided they didn’t want to be here because people weren’t [spending] there,” he said.

While chain restaurants have generally been resisted, at least half a dozen mom-and-pops have entered into a gray zone by expanding into “mini-chains” within the city.

Perhaps the eatery that started the chain reaction among some family-owned businesses is Top Dog.

Rewind to fall 1966: the original Top Dog on Durant Avenue began in true mom-and-pop fashion. Dick Riemann, 76, still the owner today, opened Top Dog with a business partner on Saturday morning when “the paint on the floor was still a might tacky.”

Within 10 minutes, there was standing room only. However, it wasn’t the appeal of the business but the fact that a hot dog seemed like the most logical food to eat en route to the UC Berkeley football game.

“The place was absolutely mobbed,” Riemann said. “It was a very fearful moment but we learned from it and many people got to know us.”

Three years later, Riemann and his wife opened a second Top Dog on the other side of the university on Hearst Avenue. About eight years ago, a third store appeared near downtown Berkeley on Center Street. “It was a matter of having a presence on the other sides of campus,” he said. “The east side had nothing by the way of foot traffic so there was no business opportunity there but the other three sides seemed naturally fitting for the university trade.”

Another family-owned business that shares a similar story is Bongo Burger. The first one also opened on the southside of UC Berkeley on Dwight Way in 1968. Because “it was successful,” owner Alireza Hamid, 63, opened two more stores, one on Euclid Avenue in 1982 and another on Center Street in 1992.

Apart from having a great presence, Hamid expanded in the places he did as a matter of convenience. Food is made daily at a Berkeley-based store and distributing to three stores within the city makes sense. “We are preparing fresh food everyday. It’s not like a fast food chain store,” he said.

Other ethnic family-owned eateries have also grown to be Berkeley mini chains.

The founder of the first La Burrita that opened on Euclid Avenue in 1986 helped the owner of the second store, Sal Naser, 49, start up next to the flagship Top Dog on Durant Avenue a couple of years later.

Although the stores are still managed by different families, the owners are good friends and agreed to maintain the same menu and even advertise and accept the same coupons.

“In general they are almost the same, so when people have a good experience at one La Burrita they combine both together,” Naser said.

A family-owned eatery that was named one of the top 10 cafes in the United States by National Geographic in 2005 has chosen to remain humble and local. The first Brazil Cafe — a “barraca,” or a small shack — appeared on University Avenue 10 years ago.

Lease complications led owner Pedro Rodin, a 42-year-old Berkeley resident, to open a larger, restaurant-style Brazil Cafe on Shattuck Avenue. “I have a good reputation, good name, good food, and wanted to stay in the business,” he said. “In case they closed my [first] place, I would be one block away and people would follow me.”

Both locations are still operating, and Berkeley residents including Wesley Hamel, 30, aren’t complaining. “There are two and it’s different from a big chain, it looks authentic,” he said. “This is a nice place and I would enjoy hanging out at another one.”

The opposite direction of expansion occurred for Thai Noodle. The first restaurant opened on Shattuck Avenue in 2000 and Thai Noodle II appeared on Telegraph Avenue a year and a half ago. Both are doing “really, really well” and experienced only about a 5 percent decrease in business since the economic downturn, according to manager Piyanuch Phettun, 26. “We’re looking to open number three next year,” he said.

While the recipe for success for some family-owned businesses has been expanding around UC Berkeley, operating on the campus itself is another option that has been tapped. Brazil Cafe is exploring the possibility.

Nine years after establishing his first business on Oxford Street, the owner of Yali’s Cafe, Ayal Amzel, 43, won two separate bids and opened locations on campus in 2008.

In the midst of negotiating for a fourth location in the Downtown, Amzel said he does not feel threatened by the few corporate chains that do exist in Berkeley.

“When new mom-and-pop’s open up they usually have new ideas because they care, so the competition is more fierce,” he said. “It’s easier for me to compete with Starbucks because I can move faster and use my creativity and put it in place faster than a corporation that is limited by its own size.”

Expansion of small businesses into family chains drew mixed reactions among community members. A frequent customer at mini chains including Top Dog, UC Berkeley senior John Lee, was “torn between the idea of convenience and monopolizing around campus.”

“I think Berkeley is unique because there are so many different mom-and-pop shops but if they keep expanding it kind of loses its flair for being a place for mom-and-pop shops,” the 22-year-old sociology major said.

While waiting for his usual burrito, Berkeley resident Richard Banegas, 25, said he didn’t think La Burrita should open any more locations. “That is when it starts losing its respect to customers,” Banegas said. “People don’t see it the same way, they [would be seen as] in it for the money.”

Still, the city’s economic development manager Michael Caplan saw expansion in a positive light, noting a difference between a locally owned chain and a national chain that sometimes doesn’t always have a longstanding connection to its customers.

“When one small business expands to a new location it’s a testament that there’s a lot of demand for the product,” he said. “Sometimes businesses outgrow their existing location and they can’t expand where they are but one way to grow and serve more people is to find another location.”

While some family chain business owners have their sights set on having a greater presence in the city, many of them are proceeding with the city’s Buy Local philosophy — certainly a mindset that puts them more in line with mom-and-pops than with corporate chains.

“I have a great interest in this city being successful and economically viable and have enough commerce in it to keep it alive, so it was natural and important for me to stay close to home,” Amzel said of his expansion plans.

Jessica Kwong is a trilingual freelance journalist whose work has been published in Spanish- and English-language publications in the Bay Area, Southern California and Latin America. She served as city news editor, investigative reporting instructor and business beat reporter for The Daily Californian while at UC Berkeley. A 2010 Hearst Fellowship recipient, she will begin working as a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle in the fall.

Photos by Jessica Kwong

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