BERKELEY -- Ann Vu took on thousands of dollars of debt to buy and equip the Heavenly Healthy Foods trailer from which she used to sell her popular Vietnamese sandwiches near the UC Berkeley entrance at Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way.
But since the city's Finance Department shut her business down with two days' notice in mid-December, the trailer has been collecting dust (and parking and insurance fees) at a lot designated by the State Health Department for food service vehicles.
Neither Vu nor the two other vendors whose Telegraph and Bancroft Way permits were yanked at the same time -- Michael Koh of Dojo Dog and Jack Huynh of Kettle Korn Star -- broke any laws. Their permits were suspended due to safety issues arising from the university's large construction project adjacent to the vendors' location.
Huynh said he understands the safety concerns, but is angry that the vendors weren't told about the project when they submitted permit applications in 2011 and invested in their businesses. He said they were made to believe -- though they have no written contracts -- that over four years, beginning in January 2012, their permits would be renewed annually if they obeyed city and health codes.
"It is hard for me to believe that the city and UC did not know that the construction project would affect our business; and we did not choose our location," Vu said in a letter to the city.
Huynh and his wife, who also worked at Kettle Korn, are now both unemployed. "In a down economy (such) as this, city officials should be looking at ways to preserve jobs, not just give you a pink slip and say, 'Hey, here's the door; go figure it out yourself,'" Huynh said.
The vendors are also asking why the city gave them just two days notice of the closure. "UC has had plans to work on this construction project now for years," said Koh, who sold Asian fusion hot dogs from his trailer, and is also a UC Berkeley senior.
The vendors say their calls and emails to the finance department go unanswered. "We are very disappointed with the very bad treatment from the city," said Vu, whose husband is ill and unable to work.
Finance Director Robert Hicks and Finance Manager Heather Murphy did not return calls for comment.
Agreeing with the vendors, the Daily Cal noted in an editorial last month that construction plans "have been in the works for several years" and "Knowing that the location could eventually become problematic, the city, not the truck owners, should have been able to devise a solution in advance or limit the length of the permits."
The vendors' cause is also championed by Councilman Kriss Worthington, whose district includes the university.
"Somebody pays all this money to build the cart, stock it and supply it, and then they get told, 'Two days from now, you're out of business,'" he said. "That's unthinkable behavior to these microbusinesses. Everybody in Berkeley says we support small business. These are the smallest of the small businesses. And they're just unceremoniously yanked from their spots and put out of business altogether."
Worthington has placed a resolution on the City Council agenda for March 19 that would direct the city manager to find temporary locations for the food carts that cannot be accommodated on the Bancroft and Telegraph site.
Economic Development Director Michael Kaplan says the city hasn't abandoned the vendors. "My sense is that there are some opportunities along Bancroft and we're exploring those," he said, declining to discuss specifics until traffic engineers assess the sites. "We will hopefully be able to do something there."
Kaplan explained that it is not easy to find appropriate food truck sites. The workers have to be able to get in and out of the trailers and "there's the queuing issue along the street, when people line up for food," he said. "And then there's getting (the trailers) on and off the sidewalk. You can't stop in a traffic lane and unload a food cart."
Kaplan was nonetheless upbeat. "The good news is that there's an effort to solve the problem," he said. "If we can identify spaces, we'll get back in touch with the vendors and try to make it work."