Lynn and Lee Vu at A’Cuppa Tea: “completely mom and pop”. Photo: Lance Knobel

Update, 9:50pm: At its meeting tonight, the Berkeley City Council upheld the ZAB decision to give a use permit to A’Cuppa Tea in the Elmwood.


At tonight’s City Council meeting, the 36th item on the agenda is an appeal against a decision of the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB) to allow A’Cuppa Tea to move to a vacant site on College Avenue in the Elmwood. Why would a unanimous decision of the ZAB on a zoning adjustment for a business to move two blocks by a City Council matter? It’s the vexed issue of neighborhood business quotas.

The Elmwood Commercial District is one of several in Berkeley with quotas for different kinds of businesses. In the Elmwood, only seven so-called quick-service food establishments are allowed in the quotas, but there are currently eight operating, and licenses have been issued for 10.

A’Cuppa Tea is currently on the corner of College and Alcatraz, but plans to move to 2992 College, just north of Webster in to space formerly occupied by H. Tulanian & Sons Oriental Rug Cleaning & Repair– about four-tenths of a mile. Its current site, however, is outside the Elmwood quotas. 

In May, the ZAB held a public hearing on the proposed adjustment. The board voted 8-0, with one abstention, to allow A’Cuppa Tea’s use permit. But the decision has been appealed by the Elmwood Merchants Association and the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association. At tonight’s meeting, the City Council can either decide to schedule a public hearing on the appeal, affirm the ZAB’s decision, or send the issue back to ZAB for reconsideration.

“Unanimous ZAB decisions are fairly rare,” said councilmember Gordon Wozniak, whose district shares the Elmwood with councilmember Kriss Worthington. Wozniak said the council sometimes overturns ZAB decisions, but it’s infrequent. City staff have recommended denying the appeal and affirming the ZAB decision.

For Lee Vu, owner of A’Cuppa Tea, the delays are puzzling, particularly after the ZAB public hearing and unanimous decision.

“If people aren’t happy, they should have gone to the hearing before,” he said. The move, Vu said, is dictated by the landlord’s decision not to renew his lease. He is determined to stay in roughly the same neighborhood.

“We are completely mom and pop,” Vu said. “I enjoy Berkeley. People have said we should move to the Oakland side of College, but I want to stay in Berkeley. It’s a unique town.”

The quota in the zoning ordinance can be exceeded when “the exception shall result in the positive enhancement of the purposes of the District, as evidenced by neighborhood resident and merchant support and marketing surveys or other information indicating probable substantial patronage by surrounding residents”. A’Cuppa Tea submitted over 500 signatures supporting their move to the ZAB.

Wozniak posted the issue on Open Town Hall, a site that gathers opinions on local government issues, and it generated 103 responses, most in favor of the ZAB decision. Among the supporters of the use permit for A’Cuppa Tea was Charlene Reis, co-owner of Summer Kitchen, a quick-service food store in the Elmwood. Reis’ supporting statement says that even though her business is a member of the Elmwood Merchants Association, she had not been consulted about the group’s opposition to the use permit.

“I have not come forth before because I have feared retribution from the Elmwood Merchants Association but have decided to come forth now because I feel that my silence in this matter would be taken as implied consent,” Reis wrote.

In contrast, the Elmwood Merchants Association and the the Claremont Elmwood Neighborhood Association oppose the use permit on three major grounds: that a higher standard of community support needs to be shown than signed petitions, that there not be a domination of one use type over others, and that there were irregularities in the notice of the ZAB public hearing.

The staff recommendation to the City Council rejects all three arguments.

If A’Cuppa Tea is given the go-ahead tonight, Vu said he plans to be open sometime in September.

“My contractors say, ‘We will work hard for you,’” he said. “We might be a little behind, but I think we can make it.”

Lance Knobel

Lance Knobel (co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine in Britain,...

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  1. I’ve never seen A’Cuppa Tea as a coffee shop, considering that it has the word “TEA” in its title. Since Elmwood’s only tea store recently closed down, this is really more of a replacement to me, rather than an addition of another coffee shop. CENA never sent out an email to its members about this issue, so for whom do they think that they were speaking?

  2. …”The quotas are indeed outdated, and they need to be revised. In the meantime, however, they are rules, and, in a nation ( or city) of laws and not men, we ought to abide by the rules until they are changed.” Mark Humbert

    Your statement seems melodramatic to me Mr. Humbert? BTW Mr. Humbert is the President of CENA. This is the neighborhood association that, along with the Elmwood Merchants Association, filed the appeal to overturn the unanimous decision of the ZAB.

    Why would CENA and the EMA waste the taxpayers money and the City Council’s time arguing about a “marginal” tea shop? Let Elmwood residents decide with their feet. Over 500 signatures were gathered in support of A Cuppa Tea.

  3. The City Council denied the appeal, so the question is now somewhat academic. But, neither CENA nor the merchants’ association supported the appeal for anti-competitive reasons.  Instead, ZAB failed to make the requisite findings under the Elmwood zoning ordinance to justify allowing an over-the-quota coffee shop. There are several of them already; there was no need for another, especially not a marginal one. The Summer Kitchen owner’s statements are melodramatic and baseless.  Summer Kitchen itself does not follow the rules.  It installed tables illicitly, without the benefit of a public restroom. In contrast, the Elmwood Cafe spent large amounts of money restoring its space, adding ADA-compliant restroom facilities; it played by the rules and is disadvantaged by Summer Kitchen’s failure to do so.  The quotas are indeed outdated, and they need to be revised. In the meantime, however, they are the rules, and, in a nation (or city) of laws and not men, we ought to abide by the rules until they are changed.  Mark Humbert

  4. What gets my business in a cafe is, in order of importance: quality of coffee, atmosphere, service, internet access, food. A Cuppa Tea fails in all those departments except internet so I will never go there, no matter which side of Alcatraz they are on. Well, truth be told, I never even ordered their food because I got so annoyed by fails in my first 3 priorities I never managed to stick around long enough to get hungry.

    Roma has euphoria inducing au laits, but mediocre to lousy food, especially since they changed bakery suppliers a few years ago (used to have amazing scones). Plus they use a stinky floor(?) cleaner that lingers in the place. But because of their au laits and atmosphere that is where I go, sitting outside whenever possible. Gordo and the treats at The Beanery fill in the holes where Roma fails.

    I say bring back a full service hardware store or, if it must be a cafe, one that stays open till midnight.

  5. I don’t understand what these business associations are so anti locally owned businesses.  Talk to any of the fairly recently opened businesses owners in Elmwood and you’ll hear horror stories about the associations and local NIMBYs.  Why are locally owned businesses given the run around but no one seems to care about 711 or Safeway sandwiching in our neighborhood and hurting business that actually support the local economy? 

  6. Indeed, as I have heard via neighborhood gossip that  SK  (which I love, btw) has had their share of nonsense from the Elmwood Merchants Association.  

    It’s ridiculous that someone has to worry what might happen if they offer an opinion or words of support to a fellow merchant. Those merchants who worry about what others might do to their business need to look at their own and perhaps need to up their game. I think, for example, Roma’s recent remodel makes their establishment much more inviting.

  7. My only thought about this is that A’Cuppa Tea is one of the few establishments I’ve encountered that can (significantly) botch making iced tea.

  8. The whole quota system is ridiculous to begin with, and the Elmwood Merchant’s Association is clearly opposing this decision to prevent competition for existing businesses, and not out of some benevolent concern for the neighborhood.