By Natalie Tinnirello and Richard Grant
Starbucks, Panda Express and Squeeze Me will not be returning to the University Dining Plaza once in-person instruction resumes at Long Beach State.
The 49er Shops voted to terminate contracts with Panda Express and Squeeze Me during a Sept. 25 Board of Directors meeting. Starbucks, which had two locations on campus, one in the University Library and the other in the UDP, removed its equipment from campus in August.
Richard Surh, the owner of Squeeze Me, had been serving juice and smoothies to students in the UDP for several years and said he felt “drastically” affected by the closure.
“I definitely want to go back. I’ve been there 15 years,” Surh said. “They’re not even sure of the odds for 2021 that they’re going to open, so right now everything is up in the air.”
Operating for 60 years, the UDP receives the vast majority of its revenue from student foot traffic, according to General Manager Robert DeWitt. Because the campus has been closed most of the year, the 49er Shops has reported over $2 million in losses.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most students were no longer on campus for in-person instruction, and the UDP was forced to close its doors indefinitely. Prior to the transition to virtual instruction, Starbucks and Panda Express would have long-snaking lines of students, but with the dining plaza shut down, those lines are now nonexistent.
The 49er Shops has a “pie in the sky” idea, DeWitt said, to use the closure as an opportunity to partner with Associated Students, Inc. in creating a new dining program that would eliminate “competition” between the two entities.
Although no plans have been made at this time, ASI officials have expressed enthusiasm about the proposal, according to Miles Nevin, ASI executive director.
There are no plans to terminate the contracts for the other food vendors, including OPA! Greek & OLE! Tacos, Hibachi San and The Beach Walk at this time, according to DeWitt.
Surh said he received a letter from a law firm confirming Squeeze Me’s lease agreement would be discontinued and that this was no longer a temporary issue.
“When I received that, I knew it was going to be permanent,” Surh said.
Operating independently from the university, the 49er Shops’ organization runs the UDP as well as the 49er Shops Bookstore, the Nugget Grill & Pub, the Corner Market, the Beach Hut, the Outpost Grill, the Wallstreat Cafe, the Art Store and the Campus Copy Center.
After classes transitioned online back in March, the 49er Shops closed most of its facilities and around 500 student employees lost their jobs.
Second-year public relations major Isabella Arnold said she was laid off from the dining plaza’s Starbucks location in March.
“They told me that they were not anticipating my location returning at all,” Arnold said. “But if they did, we would have to reapply.”
All of the convenience stores run by the 49er Shops are slated to re-open once in-person instruction resumes, though this is still undetermined.
Surh has been in contact with 49er Shops officials like Clint Campbell, director of retail dining services, to see if or when he can return to the now-closed UDP. According to Surh, “the only thing [Campbell] is sure of is that the dining plaza is going to be staying closed until next summer.”
“It seems so dismal right now and [Campbell is] not sure about anything either,” Surh said.
Officials acknowledge that the aging, non-air-conditioned UDP is worse for wear and want to see it torn down and rebuilt, a project that could cost upwards of $30 million.
According to Michael Gardner, director of campus planning and sustainability, the university has no plans to get rid of the dining plaza in the immediate future until there is another cafeteria or collection of restaurants to take its place.
As officials remain uncertain about the upcoming semesters due to the coronavirus, the 49er Shops is unable to plan for upcoming projects or a reopening schedule with set due dates.
With administrators speculating about whether in-person operations will return in fall 2021, CSULB is looking at a campus that will most likely never return to the way it was before the coronavirus-induced closures.
Surh opened another smoothie shop two years ago in San Dimas in hopes of building up his brand. Because of COVID-19, though, he has struggled to keep the doors open.
“We have a second location we’re operating right now, but it’s not doing very well as you can imagine,” Surh said. “I don’t know how long I can keep it up.”