As LA community colleges plan to toss mom-and-pop food vendors, students fight to save them

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Ofir Bass owns Pierce College Falafelicious Catering that operates the food court at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA.  (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
Ofir Bass owns Pierce College Falafelicious Catering that operates the food court at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, CA. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

WOODLAND HILLS >> It took nearly two years for Los Angeles Pierce College to find a restaurateur willing to dish out multi-ethnic grub at its sparkling-but-vacant new food court.

But now after two semesters of sated appetites, the Los Angeles Community College District is poised to yank Pierce College Falafelicious Catering off the table. Officials hope to replace such mom-and-pop food vendors with a single food service provider for all nine campuses.

And that has enraged students and faculty in Woodland Hills, who this week submitted 2,000 signatures on paper and online petitions calling for individual campus food choice.

“Hey, hey, sign a petition,” shouted Tia Smith, 22, of Sylmar to students crowding into the campus food court Thursday for burritos, pasta and hamburgers. “If they get rid of this, what else do we have?

“They’re greedy, greedy, greedy. I love this place. Where else can you get Mexican food, Italian food and American food in one spot?”

A single food service

LACCD administrators have proposed replacing more than a dozen vendors now operating the food courts, restaurants, food trucks and vending machines across the nation’s largest community college district with a single food service provider.

Swapping the current smorgasbord of food contractors with a single vendor could boost economies of scale and improve efficiency, save money, equalize revenue sharing between schools and provide a consistently good food service for hundreds of thousands of faculty, staff and students, district officials say.

The LACCD Board of Trustees will discuss a half-dozen qualified bids behind closed doors on Wednesday, officials say. They will then decide June 7 on whether to enter negotiations with a single food service contractor.

“The overarching goal of the district is to provide a consistent quality level of food service for all of our 225,000 students at all nine campuses,” said Robert B. Miller, LACCD vice chancellor for finance and resource development. “We believe that this will do that.”

RELATED STORY: Pierce College closes cafeteria, lays off staff

Some Los Angeles community college officials, who were not authorized to speak on the issue, said that the district has struggled for years to hire a single food service vendor who thought it could turn a sufficient profit.

Cafeterias that LACCD campuses had run for decades finally grew too expensive to operate, officials said, as it’s gradually fell out of favor with students. The 60-year-old Country Cafe at Pierce College closed in 2010, the Modern gull-winged cafeteria bulldozed to make way for the fast-food court.

Falafel to the rescue

Three years ago, Pierce College opened the 7,500-square-foot food court mated to a nearly $50 million campus library and computer center. The plan was to rent it to an outside vendor, then share a portion of the profits with the college.

But after nine months of operation by an independent caterer, it closed in May 2014, college officials say, and sat empty until last fall. Frustrated Pierce administrators put out a request for proposals.

Enter Falafelicious Catering, whose Encino restaurant and food truck, which rolled onto campus that year, drew lines of food fans raving about its Israeli falafel and lemon chicken fare. Its owner, Ofir Bass, signed a lease in August to open the Pierce College Falafelicious Catering food court, with an expectation he’d last at least five years. In addition to investing $50,000, he closed his Ventura Boulevard restaurant to better serve the campus food court.

He employed 20 food service workers at five food stations, many of whom were longtime employees from his restaurants.

“This place is comforting,” said Lauren Greenberg, 22, of Sherman Oaks, a vet tech who’d just inhaled a $6 hamburger. “There’s something like the food that’s just like home. It’s family owned, with a family feel. I don’t want corporate-processed food — they can go somewhere else.”

A month after he inked the food court deal, the LACCD put out a request for proposals to run food operations across a college district spanning from Agoura Hills to Wilmington. Not only would his camel-logoed catering business be marched off campus; his falafel food truck and campus coffee and ice cream stands would also be escorted to the curb.

Bass, a native of Israel, said he scrambled to submit bids to run Valley-based campus food services, which was rejected last week.

He said a rejection letter from the district suggested two potential food provider finalists: Pacific Dining of San Jose, and High Rise Goodies Restaurant Group, doing business as Trimana of Century City. Miller declined to confirm or discuss contenders.

“It’s devastating,” said Bass, 40, of West Hills, a 6-foot-3 native of Tel Aviv who said he emigrated to the U.S. to achieve the American dream. “It’s beyond disappointing. I feel it’s against the Pierce College spirit, which is in favor of small local businesses. We feel we are being bullied by the district. It’s unethical.

“What it means to us is shutting down our business; 20 employees will lose their jobs.”

Good deal for colleges?

What’s at stake, said Bass and campus faculty, is the portion of food court profits that now go to Pierce, which they and the LACCD pegged at roughly $200,000 a year. The Pierce faction claims that, under a single district-wide food source provider, that money would be seized by the district and sent downtown.

“The downtown folks are shoving this down our throats — and we’re unhappy,” said Joseph Perret, a computer science professor and Falafelicious fan. “We’re very happy with this. We’ll end up with a vendor we don’t know who doesn’t live and work here, who doesn’t know our needs.”

Miller, for his part, insisted that Pierce College would continue to profit from each bite of food. He also said that catering company workers could apply to work for a new food court vendor.

“The proceeds generated will go back to the college, and not to the district,” said Miller, who declined to discuss terms. “The percentage would be the industry norm for all nine colleges.”

Outside the food court at the tip of a triangular library building on the north side of campus across from Rocky Young Park, students breezed passed signs saying “Keep your food court open: Sign a petition today!”

“I want to fight for this … I would sign 100 times if I could,” said Yadira Ortega, 21, of Reseda looking toward the Falafelicious owner-chef. “Before this, there were no other options, just two food trucks on the other side of campus. I prefer to come here than drive off campus — or eat corporate food.

“He started this. It does well. And they just want to take over his idea.”



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