Bowling for the Bottom Line

As the Berkeley Bowl battles union organizers, owner Glen Yasuda faces a harder task: Making sure the store survives his retirement.

You don’t really go to the Berkeley Bowl to get a batch of brandywine tomatoes, or tahini, or fourteen different types of granola. You go there to get laid. To be precise, you go there because there’s an outside chance you’ll meet the person you’ll spend the rest of your life with. More than any other institution, the Bowl has unself-consciously channeled an East Bay hipster zeitgeist founded entirely on a dedication to food. And cheap, unpretentious food, too — while Chez Panisse forces you to sign over your mortgage just to get past the appetizers and lap up the Alice Waters shtick, Bowl founder Glen Yasuda quietly gets up at two every morning, personally selects exotic produce from three different wholesalers, and retails it at unimaginably low prices. Long before Wild Oats and Whole Foods commodified the boho lifestyle, Yasuda fell into the natural rhythm of the East Bay without really knowing what he was doing. He was selling fusion before it had a name. So yes, you do go to the Bowl to get brandywine tomatoes, but that’s just shorthand for everything else.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Lately, you don’t wander through the aisles as much as hack through the underbrush of nose rings and cloth shopping bags with a machete, only to count the minutes you creep closer to death at the checkout line. The Berkeley Bowl was always crowded, but after Yasuda moved to his expanded digs in 1999, the Bowl transformed itself from a seafood and produce joint with odd hours into a full-service grocery store with an unparalleled regional draw. Thousands of shoppers cram into the place every week, and the employee roster grew from 70 to 240 workers. Under mounting pressure to ease the store’s congestion, Yasuda bought a big chunk of land last year and began plotting to build a new store in West Berkeley. Meanwhile, his new employees, disenchanted with an impersonal workplace atmosphere that contrasted with the cozy lefty image that lured them in, have started organizing a union.

These two developments may well spell the end of the Berkeley Bowl as we know it. The store’s foundation is not just produce, but its idiosyncratic atmosphere, and both the expansion and the union drive threaten to erode that unique identity. Yasuda is reportedly so opposed to the union that he’s vowed to retire and sell out should it win, even as he plans to invest millions of dollars in a costly new expansion scheme. It’s said of the grocery business that you either grow or die; the Berkeley Bowl may be about to do both.

Last fall, Yasuda went shopping for land. He needed a site to house an expanded warehouse for his new operation, and settled on a parcel at the corner of Ninth Street and Heinz Avenue (the same land Michael Norton used in a bizarre plot to sell and distribute counterfeit Kona coffee in the mid-1990s). But as Yasuda realized how much the land was going to cost, he began exploring the option of building another store on the site to finance the acquisition. He retained renowned architect Kava Massih, who floated the idea past the neighbors in a series of community meetings at his West Berkeley office. The plan went over like gangbusters: West Berkeley desperately needs a grocery store, the site was close enough to the freeway to mitigate traffic concerns, and few institutions are more beloved than the Bowl.

Massih set out to design a signature building, working to incorporate community input while crafting something bold and interesting. “In today’s world, it’s not about the architect going off to a retreat and coming up with a big idea,” he says. “You have to have it be flexible enough so that people nearby can feel ownership of it. The Fountainhead model doesn’t really exist anymore. … If I were the architect from Lucky, I would probably get hung by the neighbors by now. But because it’s the Berkeley Bowl, it’s what people really want and need.” A beloved grocer bringing food to an underserved market, whose building would be designed by one of the Bay Area’s master architects. The plan was almost too good to be true.

Alas, it really was. While Yasuda was dreaming big in West Berkeley, trouble was brewing inside his own headquarters — trouble that can be traced directly back to his first expansion in 1999. From 1977 to 1999, Yasuda ran a small grocery store out of a converted bowling alley, and it had all the hallmarks of a mom-and-pop operation. Sure, the promotion policies were arbitrary and unsystematic, but because Yasuda had a personal relationship with his employees, such blemishes were relatively minor in what was a friendly, intensely personal workplace. The Bowl had once been a closed shop in the 1980s, but workers were so generally satisfied that they decertified the union in 1986.

Everything changed after the expansion. Now that Yasuda had 240 employees to oversee, he could no longer personally connect with them as he once had, and the new anonymous workers found the sloppy business models frustrating and beset with what they call “favoritism.” In addition, the Bowl’s very identity helped foment the labor crisis. Because the Bowl practically bleeds a politically active, labor-friendly Berkeley ethos, the store attracted a new crop of young, politically active college students — union organizer Irami Osei-Frimpong, for example, used to be president of UC Berkeley’s student senate. These were exactly the sort of employees who had the phone number for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in their Rolodexes, and as Yasuda was planning his new store, they started making phone calls. “A lot of people had been talking about it for a long time, and have had complaints that just got lost in middle management,” says Kevin Meyer, a Bowl employee and one of the union leaders. “But I think this is just the right chemistry now.”

Tragically, this now-bitter fight could have so easily been avoided, since the Bowl’s new employees don’t really have that many complaints. While the promotion policy is poorly thought out, the means to address grievances are atrophied, and union organizers claim the Mexicans who work the stock room are shafted by lousy pay, the Bowl still enjoys a hefty reservoir of employee goodwill. It pays wages on par with the industry standard, all full-time workers get health benefits, and the workplace culture is still unlike any other. In addition, there’s more at stake than working conditions — the Bowl’s very atmosphere depends on the idiosyncratic personality of its founder, and introducing an industrial model of labor relations to the store threatens its very identity. As the months wore on, both labor and management dug in their heels, and Yasuda, who is so reticent that he famously recoils from any kind of conflict, reportedly grew more and more dismayed at what was happening at his store.

Once his workers brought in the union, Yasuda abandoned his traditionally personal style and resorted to the same old anti-union tactics honed by a century of labor strife. He retained Jackson Lewis, a law firm that specializes in combating union drives; allegedly held captive meetings where employees were subjected to anti-union propaganda; and asked at least one employee if he or she had signed a union card, a practice that violates federal labor laws. “When we first came out with trying to get the cards signed, they found out somehow,” Meyer says. “They responded with a flier that said ‘Little card, big trouble.’ … For the next week or so, they’d have captive audience meetings with three or four workers from each department.” Last week, the Bowl’s exasperated cashiers staged an impromptu walkout, reportedly after management fired a longtime employee who had joined the organizing drive.

Meanwhile, union members have resorted to their own hardball tactics. They made dramatic yet unproven charges — including issuing a press release that claimed management “made threats to fire up to 100 of its 220 employees” — held a Labor Day rally in front of the store, and recruited United Farm Worker veteran Dolores Huerta to urge the public to support the union. Chuck McNally, one of the lead union organizers, ratted out the store to the city’s Environmental Health Department, claiming that the Bowl’s dairy coolers were infested with mold, the yogurt coolers were illegally warm, and the olive bar didn’t have a sneeze guard. Health inspectors found no merit to the mold complaint, but did order management to shield the olives from any potential olfactory detonations. McNally, who was fired shortly thereafter, declined to comment for this story.

But it was apparently a comment by UFCW leader Tim Hamann that triggered what could have been a catastrophic showdown. In a story in the Berkeley Daily Planet, Hamann suggested that if management kept fighting the union, organizers just might get the city council to kill Yasuda’s new store. “Why would you want a fungus like that to spread?” he was quoted as saying. Yasuda refused to discuss his labor problems, but according to his associates, this gave the owner nightmares of the city council ruining his dreams and flushing all the money he had just invested down the toilet. “I mean, it’s Berkeley, man,” says Massih. “All it takes is a few people that are adamantly against cutting them any breaks. … No one at the Berkeley Bowl needed the aggravation.”

In July, Yasuda abruptly abandoned his expansion plans, prompting panicked phone calls from members of the city council and Mayor Tom Bates, who assured Yasuda that his new store was safe. “My understanding is that once he got clarity that the city saw them as separate issues, he reapplied,” says Councilman Kriss Worthington. “He got a clear signal that the two things are unrelated and turned in his application.”

For now, the West Berkeley store is back on track. Yasuda has calmed down a bit, and everyone’s waiting to see how the eventual union vote will turn out. But the Bowl has crossed a Rubicon of sorts, and can never return to the old mom-and-pop shop it once was. There are businesses that succeed because they offer quality goods at low prices, and then there are those that succeed because they make you fall in love with them. But stores like that depend upon a particularly elusive quality, one inevitably eroded by their own trajectory. The Bowl expanded so dramatically because people were drawn to its distinctiveness, yet this expansion has unleashed forces that threaten the very distinctiveness that made it possible. “These kinds of businesses, because they’re so unique and driven by a character or two, tend to get destroyed when they unionize,” Massih says. “Because the peculiar things that make them what they are, their edges, they get rounded. The weirdness of it just isn’t there anymore.”

Not all such stores succumb to these pressures. Workers at Cody’s Books have enjoyed union representation for years, and it hasn’t diminished the bookseller’s identity. But Cody’s was fortunate enough to come under the guidance of Andy Ross, who bought the store after Fred Cody died and whose business instincts and deep love of books has kept it alive in the face of stiff competition. And that’s Yasuda’s most critical challenge over the next few years: finding a way for the Berkeley Bowl to survive him. Yasuda is 69 years old, and there’s no getting around the fact that his best years are behind him. His son has just graduated from UCLA, but word is he doesn’t share his father’s passion for the business. Meanwhile, organic grocery chains constantly pester Yasuda with offers to buy his store. “Wild Oats, they call me all the time,” he says. “I get other offers all the time.” As for whether his son wants to inherit the responsibility of the Berkeley Bowl, Yasuda merely says, “He’s young yet.”

The 1970s produced some remarkably idiosyncratic and creative institutions: organic produce, independent record labels, alternative newsweeklies. But the men and women who built them are getting old, and handing the administration over to the next generation while retaining the magic that spawned them is proving harder than anyone thought.

In his own oblique way, Yasuda knows this all too well. “It’s pretty hard to get up at two in the morning and cover three wholesale markets; it’s pretty intense work,” he says. “Buying produce is very subjective.” When asked if the Bowl can survive his departure unchanged, he demurred, “We have a pretty good team here. If it does, it does. Like they say, it’s subjective. If I don’t do the produce, it’ll change.”

Whether it changes for the worse depends on whether Yasuda can find his own Andy Ross.

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