Mountain View Voice

News - July 12, 2013

Can't compete with free eats

Facing closure, Shoreline restaurant owners try to negotiate with Google

by Daniel DeBolt

A group of restaurant owners north of Highway 101 say they have been watching their customers disappear as Google expands in the area, bringing them to the brink of closure unless Google is willing to pay for its employees to eat off-campus.

In Mountain View, over 10,000 Google employees are now fed in private cafeterias serving organic food throughout the North Bayshore area north of Highway 101, like the one that recently opened at 1015 Joaquin Road, around the corner from the restaurants. The result is that most of the restaurants have lost a majority of their business over the last year, owners say.

"When you've lost 70 percent of your business, how long can you pay rent? Maybe seven to eight months?" said Bella Awdisho, owner of Cucina Venti, an Italian restaurant on Pear Avenue and Shoreline Boulevard. The owner of Falafel and Kebab, Dervis Yuksel, said he recently sold his car to pay his restaurant's rent, and said he wasn't sure how much longer he'd stay open.

In an attempt to save their businesses, the restaurants have been in talks with Google in recent months to find a solution. Awdisho has been representing the owners of the restaurants, including Shoreline Park's lakefront favorite Michael's at Shoreline, and several small eateries near the Century movie theaters: Sunny Bowl, Falafel and Kebab, Hon Sushi, and Ole Taqueria. They say there is really only one way for them to stay in business — Google should pay for its employees to eat off-campus. But Google executives have refused, the owners say.

"We are all going to close," Awdisho said of the businesses, saying that many would be "looking at bankruptcy" to pay off debts. She has 13 years left on her 20-year lease.

Googlers still eat free

In private conversations, Yuksel and Awdisho said Google executives refused a proposed program where Google employees would use Google funds at the local restaurants using something like the "Google wallet" app. A Google spokesperson denied that such an arrangement was discussed, though City Council member Mike Kasperzak said he'd been part of talks to have such an arrangement implemented. Chamber of Commerce director Oscar Garcia said it had also been brought up in the talks, but Google never confirmed whether it could be done.

The restaurant owners say Google executives refused such an arrangement because the restaurants aren't up to Google's standards — including the use of organic ingredients. There was also the issue of taxes, Awdisho said. Google executives explained to Awdisho and others that they would have to pay additional taxes if Googlers were reimbursed for eating off-campus.

"As a giant company, they are looking for pennies here and there to save," Awdisho said.

A Google spokesperson said the the tax and food quality issues Awdisho claimed Google executives raised were "misinformation." The spokesperson added that Google has only discussed what is in two letters addressed to the restaurant owners that were provided to the Voice.

In the first letter, Google refuses to provide a fixed subsidy to the restaurants, an option proposed by the restaurant owners in May. "Google would owe the fixed amount regardless of whether Google employees choose to eat at these locations," writes Google's real estate director John Igoe, adding that such a deal is "not something Google is able to support." The letter does not address paying for individual employees.

Igoe suggests the restaurants change their business models to attract Googlers.

"In our discussions with you we have highlighted many services that Google doesn't provide to our employees, including alcohol service, delivery and take home dinners — all of these are business opportunities for you to implement and attract the patronage of Google employees."

In a following letter, Google does offer to help the restaurant owners advertise their businesses online.

"We'd be happy to host you and other North Bayshore small businesses at our campus for breakfast in the coming weeks, where you can receive personalized training to get your restaurant set up with free Google products," writes Google's community affairs manager Veronica Bell. "These tools and tips can help make it easier for customers (including Googlers) to find your business online and make sure your business information is correct in search results."

Awdisho and Yuksel said the offers to help with online advertising felt like a "slap in the face."

Google perks

The Chamber of Commerce also pushed Google's products, including something called "Google perks," a discount advertising program directed at Google employee, similar to Groupon, Awdisho said. It would require the restaurants discount their prices by 20 percent, which would be a "recipe for disaster," she said.

Garcia told the Voice that Google perks was part of "a holistic approach to helping those businessmen. One of the things is to help those businessmen have a stronger online presence. Attract business not just from Google but surrounding communities as well."

In the last year alone, the owners of say they've seen thousands of employees who once ate lunch at their businesses — employees of Siemens, Visa and Omnicell, among others — leave the area to make way for Google.

"All of North Bayshore is going to become a Google campus," Awdisho said. If she were to become a catering business, as Google seems to imply, she says she wouldn't be able to compete with caterers operating out of buildings with much lower rents.

The situation for Yuksel, the owner of Falafel and Kebab, is dire.

"I sold my car, and I don't have a second car to sell to pay my rent," Yuksel said. "We don't know what we are going to do. In two months or three months, we've got to close the doors."

While Google is not legally obligated to do anything about the businesses, Kasperzak said Google should be concerned with public opinion.

"Google does need to be concerned about the perception of the public as well as the City Council," Kasperzak said. "While they don't have any obligations, they have that motto of theirs, 'Do no evil.' Driving businesses out of business is not going to be perceived well by the community."

Council member Jac Siegel said restaurants aren't the only ones suffering — businesses around the city providing services that Google provides on campus are also struggling, especially as rents rise dramatically.

"It's unfortunate we've become a one-company town so dominated by one company, Siegel said. "Google has done things for the city but very little compared to the size of this multi-billion dollar company. I've gone on record telling Google they are underwhelmingly generous to our city. "

Google is "definitely going to run these companies out of business," Siegel said,

Siegel added that it probably won't be too long before the 16-screen Century movie theater in North Bayshore also closes. It draws dinner and weekend business to the restaurants. He said Google has offered to buy the theaters, and would likely propose to build housing there in the future, though the City Council has opposed the idea.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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