Back in September, Sol y Luna — a cozy taqueria known for its handmade tortillas — closed its location in Downtown Berkeley. Toward the end of the spring semester, popular Northside mom and pop shop Jasmine Thai announced it was closing for business. This past weekend, Jayakarta, the only Indonesian restaurant in Berkeley, shuttered its windows.
The list of independent restaurants going out of business is growing at an alarming rate. Rising rent prices and gentrification are forcing many established restaurants out of the city. And unfortunately, a large percentage of ethnic restaurants fall into that category. Berkeley prides itself on being a cultural mecca, but it hasn’t prioritized its preservation.
Although Berkeley has several resources to help small businesses get off the ground, the city has failed to put effective measures into place that help culturally significant businesses stay open. As of 2019, the city’s Office of Economic Development outlined key objectives, including piloting small business retention programs. The plans for such programs, however, mostly emphasize educating owners on business practices. In a competitive market, these small businesses need active and tangible support from the city to stay afloat.
Many of these are located within walking distance of campus and are therefore easily accessible to college students. When feeling homesick, students take comfort in frequenting eateries. Without access to familiar cuisines, they’re left feeling isolated and even more detached from home.
Each time a popular restaurant bids farewell, it elicits an overwhelmingly emotional response from the Berkeley community. Current students and alumni alike joined forces in an outpouring of emotion when Indian Flavors Express closed last summer and again when Jayakarta announced its departure from the city. Berkeley residents know and value the existence of these places. It’s time that the city takes action to ensure that culturally significant restaurants can not only get off the ground, but also thrive for years to come.
Take a look at San Francisco, for example. Legacy businesses are given a rent stabilization grant that allows such institutions to remain in the city. Berkeley ought to take a page out of its neighbor’s book and expand upon its current small business policy plans by offering a similar funding mechanism to culturally significant restaurants. Rather than focusing efforts on helping small businesses get started in Berkeley, it’s critical that the city continues to invest in what makes Berkeley the colorful, multicultural hub that it is.
Visitors that step out onto our city’s streets often marvel at the sheer variety of eateries and cuisines that distinguish Berkeley from so many other college towns in the country. Berkeley is unique in that it provides a sampling of cultures from all over the world — to let that go is to let our city’s identity go.