University Avenue’s West Coast Pizza shut down earlier this year following a $150,000 labor lawsuit filed against the restaurant’s owners.
The centrally located shop for late night cheese stick runs and pizza-hungry UC Berkeley students was established in 1992 as part of a chain of cheap pizza places in college areas, according to former owner Jon Guhl, who ran the store from 2000 to 2008.
“Everything was correct there. We made the dough fresh everyday with good California tomatoes (and) whole milk mozzarella,” Guhl said. “The food, for cheap pizza, was good food.”
In 2008, he sold the store to an acquaintance, Benny Huerta, who owned it until his death in 2019. The shop then came under the control of his former wife Rosario Huerta and daughter Leticia Huerta.
The store’s closure, which was first reported by Berkeleyside, was due to debt liabilities accrued through an ongoing lawsuit filed against Benny Huerta in 2016, according to Anuar Ramirez-Medina, the attorney representing West Coast Pizza in the suit. Following Benny Huerta’s death, his daughter may now be subject to legal liability, Ramirez-Medina added.
Former workers Oscar Ahumada and Bryan Ahumada filed wage claims against West Coast Pizza in 2016 for “unpaid wages, damages and penalties,” according to the lawsuit. The two plaintiffs, who are father and son, further alleged in the complaint that they have “received nothing” from the defendants.
“The Labor Code allows workers to recover unpaid wages from successors when they are related to the original judgment debtor,” said Carol Kim, an attorney from the California Labor Commissioner’s Office who represented the Ahumadas. “Since the business benefited from the workers’ labor and the business continues to operate in the same way, the same business with a different owner is also held responsible for paying for the same labor.”
However, Ramirez-Medina argued that Rosario Huerta, the standing owner of the shop, had “nothing to do” with the wage issues and violations as they were imposed before she became the owner.
In addition to the lawsuit, Ramirez-Medina said that his client inherited other debts and financial liabilities, which, in combination with the COVID-19 pandemic, made it difficult for the business to “stay afloat.”
“The injustice in all of this is that you have a 23-year-old defendant here, who is happy to continue the family business,” Ramirez-Medina said. “But in the end, the pandemic was a wooden stake in the heart and she couldn’t recover from that … so she tried to do that but then the liabilities were too big and she ended up inheriting a ton of debt.”
Ramirez-Media alleged that the defendants tried to negotiate for a “reasonable sum” of money, which the plaintiffs would not accept. This forced Rosario Huerta to close the shop with a “heavy heart,” he noted.
Guhl said that the closing of West Coast Pizza would impact the community, especially because the store was a go-to for large crowds of people. On a personal note, he added it was a “pet project” for him to explore different styles of pizza and propelled him to the next level of his restaurant business career.
“We were there for a long time. It was a pizza place for 30 years, so it is a little sad,” Guhl said. “But I know there are people who would like to see it rise again … so it may not be as dead as we all think.”