Nearby shops give mixed reports on Occupy Oakland’s effect on sales
on October 24, 2011
If restaurant owners in Frank Ogawa Plaza learned anything from the Occupy Oakland protest, it’s that no one wants to eat lunch next to a Porta Pottie.
Business owners and employees who work in the plaza watched protesters set up camp outside of City Hall two weeks ago in a demonstration modeled after the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, and in that short time, saw their numbers swell dramatically to hundreds of people. By the time it was raided by police during the pre-dawn hours on Monday, the tent city boasted its own kitchen and two rows of Porta Potties flanking a portable sink. But as the encampment expanded, the midday lunch rush that keeps many of the surrounding businesses afloat thinned.
While shop owners in the neighborhood offer mixed reports on whether the protest has been good or bad for business, the consensus within the plaza is that the occupiers had displaced many regular customers.
“A lot of people don’t want to enter the plaza because they say it’s dirty. It smells outside because people are using the bathroom there,” said Mark Smmouri, the manager of Plaza Café, a small restaurant that relies on a steady lunch rush driven by city workers.
“I’ve been here six months, and since then, business has been up, up, up,“ Smmouri said. But since the occupiers set up camp on the plaza directly in front of his restaurant, sales have slowed, he said. “I think business has gone down maybe 30 percent. A lot of people have asked if we deliver because they don’t want to leave their offices.”
During lunchtime on Monday, the plaza was particularly quiet, despite the bustling encampment at its center. While a handful of people in business attire ate lunch on nearby benches, the dining tables closest to the Porta Potties remained empty.
“It’s too slow,” said Nohemi Perez, the manager of the Juice Joint, as she gestured towards the only three customers in the restaurant. “The people who work next door are scared to go outside because [the occupiers] fight sometimes, and it smells bad.”
Moji Ghafouri, the owner of Caffe Teatro, a coffee shop on the outskirts of the plaza, said that her sales increased a bit right after the occupation began, but have since fallen off because many of her customers are worried about unsanitary conditions around the camp and rumors of petty crime. “At first people were curious about what was going on, but now lots of my customers are telling me they don’t want to go anywhere near that plaza because it’s not clean, it’s dirty and it smells,” she said, adding that a few of her security guard’s possessions were also stolen last Friday.
Rose Berg, who works for Arcadian Health Plan, is one of the local 9-to-5 workers who abandoned Frank Ogawa Plaza to eat lunch in the nearby, un-“occupied” Oakland City Center. “It’s filthy and people are getting beat up,” she said of the plaza campsite. “I’m avoiding it right now.”
The exception seems to be Rising Loafers, a sandwich shop that looks directly onto the encampment and offers a nearly panoramic view of its Porta Pottie line-up. Owner Maria Gastelumendi said sales have risen modestly over the past two weeks—largely because of purchases from the protesters. “People are noticing us,” she said. “Not to say that my sales have doubled.” She attributes the additional foot traffic to her business’s “socially responsible” reputation. “The core of the [occupiers] understand what it is to be a green business, to be organic, and to be involved in the community,” Gastelumendi said.
It’s ironic, she notes: The recession “crushed” her business, causing her to lose 50 percent of sales two years ago. Now, she said, the support of the occupiers is helping her build back the business she nearly lost.
Workers at a few establishments outside of the plaza, such as Subway and De Lauer’s Super News Stand on Broadway Avenue, say they have experienced a slight increase in business since last week, as well, citing an average of about 40 to 50 additional customers each per day. “Sometimes they come in 20 to 25 people, in a group, and there is a long line,” said Fasil Lemma, the owner of De Lauers News Stand. “It’s crazy.”
But both Subway and De Lauer’s are open nights and weekends and sell inexpensive products, which may be the key to their increased sales. Lemma points out that most of the news stand’s additional traffic starts around 7 PM or arrives on the weekends and consists of Occupy campers who come in to the store to purchase cigarettes, drinks, and snacks.
For the most part, managers of other dining and retail establishments located further away from City Hall—those in about a two-block radius—say they have not been affected at all by the Occupy Oakland movement. “It’s the same business. The regular, same people still come in here,” said Julio Rodriguez, the assistant manager of the Burger King on Broadway Avenue. “It’s not been a problem.”
A few doors down at Goodwill, manager Jamila Owens echoed this statement, as did Peet’s Coffee and Tea barista Naish Williams. “Some people come in and talk about [Occupy Oakland], but there’s not a lot of people that seem to be coming from over there because this is the financial district part,” Williams said.
The exception might be Tully’s Coffee, which, despite being located no more than a stone’s throw from the campsite on the southeast corner of the plaza, has not experienced a change in sales, said manager Shari Rivers. “The first couple days it picked up quite a bit, but now we’re back to our regular customers,” she said. “The only thing I have a problem with is people doing terrible things to my bathrooms.”
In fact, access to restrooms is a hot topic for many businesses, such as Goodwill, Peet’s Coffee and Tea, and De Lauer’s Super News Stand, where staffers have noticed an increase in the number of people asking to use their facilities each day. “A lot of people come in asking for the restroom, like every half hour,” said Lemma, who has a sign out front that says the store has no restroom.
Some businesses, such as Rite Aid Pharmacy, Jamba Juice, Flowers and Errands, Walgreens, and the Oakland Marriot City Center, declined to comment on the campsite’s influence, citing either company policy or a desire to remain neutral about the protest. A Walgreens employee named Nicole, who would only give her first name, hinted that even before the campsite had formed, a unique and somewhat unpredictable social climate already existed in the area. “It’s downtown. Anywhere downtown people are slightly off,” she said, while watching a Walgreen’s employee and two yellow-shirted security guards usher a disruptive, mentally ill woman wearing no shoes out of the store.
“There’s a lot of everything down here,” said Goodwill’s Owens. “Everyday people come in and things happen.”
Yet even some of the business owners and managers who cited customer complaints and declining sales figures have been supportive as they watched the demonstration unfold. “I like their point,” said Smmouri of Plaza Café, despite the fact that several of his outdoor chairs and tables have disappeared into the encampment. “I don’t want my children to be without jobs in the future. I don’t want anyone to be homeless. It affects my business now, but I can take it.”
Because he’s part of a small business, Smmouri said he can sympathize with the underlying sentiment of the demonstration. While the business pays out a lot of money in taxes, he said, many corporations can get away with paying much less. “That’s not right,” he said.
Other Oakland businesses are openly supporting the protest by making contributions to keep the tent city going. Everett and Jones BBQ donated Porta Potties, while the employees of Tully’s Coffee have been pooling their own money to buy the occupiers coffee, cleaning supplies and even fried chicken.
“It’s been out of our own pockets because we are part of the 99 percent,” said Rivers, the Tully’s manager. “Just because we’re at work doesn’t mean we don’t agree with the main cause, the big picture. If I wasn’t working, I’d be right out there with them.”
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.