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.


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