When Berkeley High School (BHS) closed in March, no one knew how long it would be before students could return to the hallways, people, and beloved lunch spots that are part of an in-person education at BHS. At the time, the main concern of students, parents, and teachers was the long term academic ramifications distance learning might have. Now, however, it is clear that the consequences of the mandated school closure have been felt across the city of Berkeley, especially by the local businesses that have long been favorites of the BHS student body, and could depend on the frequent flocks of students for business in pre-pandemic times. For downtown spots like Toss Noodle Bar, K’s Cafe, Sushinista, and Nuha’s, the regular business students bring is an essential part of their livelihood.
At Toss, the students are so vital that manager Ake Tang had the BHS daily lunch schedule memorized so that staff could prepare for the lunch rush every day. “It was a lot of students in a short time. It was crazy, but we miss it. We haven’t had that in months.”
Kamel Bouch, the manager of the beloved K’s Cafe, echoed Tang’s sentiment. Bouch estimated that business at K’s was down by eighty percent, a loss he attributed almost entirely to distance learning. Today, K’s is almost unrecognizable. The crowds of students flowing out the door have been replaced by stickers marking six foot distances and a plexiglass shield in front of the cash register.
“It doesn’t just feel different, it is different. There is no movement,” said Bouch. “If you look around, no one is passing by. It’s been a long time now, it’s been a while, and it’s just bad.”
There is a support system in place to help these businesses in the form of governmental grants. One million dollars worth of grants were made available for small businesses by the City of Berkeley in May, supplementing the grants available from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Over 469 organizations in Berkeley received funding from the PPP and yet by all accounts, this aid has not been enough.
Only two of the businesses the Jacket interviewed applied for or received any emergency funding. The reasons for this are not completely clear. For K’s, the management began the application process for a grant but eventually deemed it too complicated to be worth the effort. Nuha’s was closed from March until June, so they did not apply. However, manager of Nuha’s, Manny Zokari said that if there were to be another round of grants, Nuha’s would likely apply.
Conversely, Sushinista and Toss did receive PPP grants. Tang reported that Toss used the money mostly to pay staff, rent and utilities bills. According to owner Hirokazu Nishikawa, Sushinista — despite having received a grant of over twenty thousand dollars — is “still struggling.”
Across all of these establishments, drastic changes have had to be made, both to satisfy the ever-changing safety guidelines and to account for the sharp decrease in customers. All of the businesses reported having been forced to cut down their hours. Many have also had to lay off workers.
In an effort to increase business, K’s has introduced new products and practices. The cafe recently reintroduced an ice cream bar, which will recognize a discount for any student who comes into the shop with their student ID.
Some eateries have been helped by the return of UC Berkeley students, but not all. Although courses at the university are still offered completely online, there were 2,200 students in the residence halls as of August 24 and many more living off campus in the city. At Toss, which is located closer to the Cal campus than many of the other lunch spots near BHS, the management was surprised by the uptick in business when the university semester began.
K’s, however, has not benefited from the return of Cal students. Because of K’s location on Center St. near Milvia — in direct proximity to not only BHS, but to Berkeley City College and the City of Berkeley offices — the loss of customers has been especially harsh. Nuha’s, only a block away from K’s, is seeing a similar downturn. According to Zokari, BHS students made up approximately 45 percent of the business at Nuha’s.
All of these eateries need support now more than ever, but one important way to help them is to simply follow local health guidelines. “Honestly, the best way for Berkeley High students to support us is to be careful and stay healthy. We all have to slow the spread so that you can come back to school and you can come back and enjoy your noodles again. There is really nothing else I can ask for,” says Tang.