My Chan and her husband Kim Phuong have been cooking Chinese vegetarian dishes to a loyal clientele in the small, unassuming Vegi Food in North Berkeley for 28 years. But that may be about to change.
Recently, the building housing the restaurant at 2085 Vine Street (between Henry Street and Shattuck Avenue) changed hands. Chan and Phuong, who rent on a month-to-month basis, are concerned that the new owner is looking to lease the space in this locale on the edge of the Gourmet Ghetto to prospective tenants who have more cash to invest in the restaurant-retail space than they do.
Make no mistake, there’s nothing fancy pants about Vegi Food, a no-frills, hole-in-the-wall, mom-and-pop shop with a drab exterior and a dining area begging for a makeover. It’s the kind of place that many local eaters likely pass by without notice on their way to the Cheese Board, Off the Grid, or the farmers’ market — let alone high-end joints like Chez Panisse. But it gets high marks from its regulars — many of whom have come for decades — for its inexpensive, healthy chow miens, stir fries, and soups, which feature loads of vegetables and bean curd, and avoid garlic, onion, MSG, eggs, and meat.
It also gets praise for its friendly atmosphere and homey feel: Chan asks about customers’ families and health, remembers regular orders, and accommodates diners’ dietary needs and preferences.
“We’ve been eating at Vegi Food since the early 1980s and go about once a week,” said regular customer Bob Levin. “We like the freshness of the food and the way it’s prepared. We order the mu shu, hot braised bean curd, sweet and sour walnuts, sizzling rice soup, and something called ‘the special,’ which we saw My serve to people from the Cheese Board who had concocted it.”
Understandably, Phuong and Chan are anxious about what the future holds. These immigrants from Vietnam with a Chinese background have put four children through college while running the restaurant, which is open seven days a week. For the couple, who are in their 50s and live in Richmond Annex, it’s the only work they’ve known. Prior to taking over the business almost three decades ago they worked for the previous owner of the restaurant.
Friends are trying to help them find an alternative location, should that prove necessary, but most similar-sized restaurant spaces are beyond their means, Chan told Berkeleyside. “I’ve showed them some potential storefronts in the area but so far there hasn’t been a place that might work that they can afford,” said Karen Nelsen, a realtor who primarily works with residential properties who is helping the couple in their search for an alternative location.
Theirs is a classic immigrant success story: After arriving as refugees they carved out a life in a foreign land through hard work, long hours, and personal sacrifice. Business has been down in recent years, they said, but the couple assumed they’d keep cooking from their current location as long as their customers kept coming. Chan has looked for alternative employment, but doesn’t like her chances of finding a job, as an older worker with limited English skills. “We don’t know what’s going to happen or what we’ll do,” she said.
The property is now owned by Ito Ripsteen (given name Ryan) who is also the leasing agent for the space with Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services. The 1950 building, which includes an upstairs apartment on a 4,200 square foot lot, was sold May 25th for $880,000.
In addition to that real estate maxim — location, location, location — the site listing for the space includes features such as “building undergoing major remodel, including new roof, paint, seismic upgrade, storefront upgrade” and “coveted restaurant zoning permit in place…in a neighborhood with quota restrictions.”
The seismic upgrade is pending city approval and will likely require that the restaurant couple relocate, said Ripsteen, who expects that work to begin within the next couple of months. He also said that he is open to considering all opportunities in terms of leasing the space and added that he is on good terms with the current tenants.
Phuong and Chan know the building needs long overdue maintenance and improvements. They’d also like to stay. What’s not certain: the fate of Vegi Food. “This is a unique place — I’ve been eating here once or twice a week for 35 years, before Kim and My took over the business from the original owner,” said Eric King. “If they can’t stay, there are many customers who hope they find a place nearby to cook their food.”
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Shop Talk: The ins and outs of Berkeley businesses [05.15.12]
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