Two years ago, Panda Express approached the UC Berkeley Store Operations Board (SOB) for the first time. They were interested in being the first fast-food chain in Lower Sproul, which was the site of much of the free speech movement activism in the ‘60s and is a historically significant part of UC Berkeley. Through some shady back-door negotiations, Panda Express and the SOB began working out a contract. In fall 2008, students became aware of this unhealthy and unsustainable corporate chain’s attempt to brand our campus and launched an anti-Panda campaign. That semester, a petition against Panda Express received over 500 signatures, and the Daily Cal, our campus newspaper, started covering the issue.
Student momentum began to really pick up in February 2009, as several highly motivated students focused their efforts and began a vigorous multi-faceted campaign. We gained widespread visibility through an article on the front page of the Bay Area section of the San Francisco Chronicle, which covered a protest in front of an existing Panda Express. We made formal demands of Panda Express, including that they adhere completely to the Real Food guidelines, and we let them know we would not back down. We spoke in classrooms, in house dinners, in student group meetings to let people know what was up. We spent countless hours researching and preparing our arguments against Panda Express. We came out in record numbers to the Store Operations Board meetings. We harnessed student power and made sure the SOB knew we wouldn’t stand for this.
On April 14, the SOB voted on whether or not to let Panda Express into our community. Students presented impeccably researched arguments, detailing the problems with Panda: it’s unhealthy, it’s unsustainable, the money students spend wouldn’t stay in the community, it’s branding a historically un-branded space, and it’s cheapening our incredible university when we have an opportunity to do something really visionary. We also relayed our research from SOB minutes, proving that the shady dealings of Panda Express were in violation of SOB bylaws. After months of work, the Store Operations Board voted against the current Panda Express contract 5-4 – and then immediately re-opened negotiations by tweaking the contract slightly.
Despite this blow, we didn’t give up. We came to the May 5 SOB meeting with new arguments and the same passion and student power. This time it paid off: the Store Operations Board made a motion to end all negotiations with Panda Express and this motion passed 6-3. Immediately after, a motion was made to open the space in Lower Sproul (the one Panda had wanted) to Request for Proposals, looking for a new business that would reflect our values. This motion passed as well.
May 5 was an incredibly powerful day for us. That day, we learned how much power we have. Panda Express was Goliath, with its 1200 stores and its projections of $1,000,000 in yearly revenue and its staff whose sole job was to make sure Panda Express got into Berkeley. We were David, with some passionate students studying SOB meeting minutes and calling friends and dancing in panda suits in between classes. All we did was tell them what we wanted and show them that we had some serious student power, and they listened. They had to listen. For anyone who tells you that you can’t, that you’re just a student and you should stay in your place, this victory is proof that we are powerful. As the Chinese proverb goes: “Those who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of those doing it.”