Which is why Sahara’s owner, Helen Nesheiwat, and the restaurant’s employees were caught completely off guard when they received a notice early last week saying they are being replaced, and have until May 22 to pack up and leave.
“We were shocked when we received the letter,” Nesheiwat said. “We never had any problems [with UNM]. We had good numbers and very very good service.”
Chartwells, UNM’s food service contractor, is planning to replace Sahara and Times Square Deli, both local businesses owned by the Nesheiwat family, with Subway. Nesheiwat said the move confounds her.
“If another local business was going in, that’s okay. Give a chance to other people. But a chain? We’re supposed to support the community,” she said.
Kristine Andrews, communications director for Chartwells, said that the contractor is constantly thinking about staying up do date with what UNM students want.
“Local, regional and national brand vendor relationships are reviewed once per year by a number of measure, including but not limited to faster service, student preferences and food trends,” she said.
According to a statement form Chartwells, on Friday, April 17, the Student Union Board Retail Subcommittee considered options for changes before voting unanimously to the switches, along with replacing Saggio’s with WisePies.
The changes were then approved on April 20 by the SUB Board.
According to the statement, “A mix of national brand recognition and continued support of local brands was important to the student and campus leadership.”
But Nesheiwat said that if students have been desiring something else, she has seen no signs of it.
“We’re always on the code, we’re always on the spot, we always give our best service,” she said. “You can check with thousands of students, and they will tell you the same thing.”
And not just students, as a matter of fact. Scott England, a professor at UNM’s School of Law, said that he rarely comes to the SUB but when he does Sahara is his preferred option.
“From my perspective, it’s a great place. They serve great food, the service is outstanding. It’s the best place to get food in the SUB, and it’s a great local business. So I’m disappointed that the University is choosing to get rid of a local business in favor of a national chain,” he said.
Nesheiwat said that her business itself won’t suffer. There is another Sahara on Central across from the University, as well as a location on North Campus. There will also be a new Sahara opening soon on the west side, Nesheiwat said. But that isn’t the issue that upsets her.
“What about the employees we have at the SUB? What’s going to happen to them? They have children, they have their bills, they have responsibilities, they have mortgages to pay or rent,” she said. “You just have no idea how upset they are.”
She said she sees the move as unfair, due to the scarcity of Middle Eastern cuisine on or near main campus. She said the University shouldn’t remove a restaurant that caters to a specific group on campus.
“There’s a lot of Arab students – they pay fees, they pay tuition, there’s an Arab crew that works there. And they want Sahara, they want the Middle Eastern food,” Nesheiwat said. “It’s not okay to put a chain in there, but that’s their business. But [to] take out Sahara, I think this is discrimination.”
Andrews said that Chartwells has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination, and that they actually tried to continue their partnership with Sahara.
“We offered Sahara the opportunity to license some menu items so that we could offer them at locations across campus but they declined,” she said. “Chartwells will still integrate Middle Eastern dishes into retail and residential menus.”
But that isn’t enough for supporters of Sahara.
The restaurant has been taking signatures all week from students petitioning for the business to stay. The comments on the petitions range from “Keep business local!” to “Awesome place!” and “Great food!”
Nesheiwat said that at noontime on Monday they had already over 500 signatures from students who support Sahara. By late Tuesday afternoon, Sahara’s employees in the SUB said they had at least twenty pages of student names that they plan to present before the University at some point.
Raul Ayala, a sophomore double majoring in history and Spanish, was helping out Sahara on Tuesday by taking a petition sheet and going around the SUB getting signatures.
Ayala said that while taking away Sahara would partially eliminate the diversity of food options that the SUB offers, he also said he just wants to support them for the personable service he consistently receives.
“I eat there literally three days a week and I really like the service that they give me, they know me well, they know what I get every time,” he said. “I’m really just trying to help them out because they’re really nice guys.”
Nesheiwat said that the SUB is Sahara’s busiest location, and that 18 percent of their profits go to UNM. Andrews said that that commission is in place of rent that Sahara or any other restaurant in the SUB pays.
Andrews was unable to say whether the other restaurants in the SUB pay the same percentage of commission, because “sales information is confidential and not released publicly,” as well as contract details.
However, Andrews did say that termination clauses are a standard part of contracts, so that they can cater to students’ needs as they see fit.
“A 30-day termination clause allows parties to separate with 30-days’ notice so subcontractors can leave if their business needs dictate,” she said.
David Maile, a graduate student studying American studies, said that the move to bring in Subway oppresses local businesses in favor of capitalistic ventures.
“Choice is good, but providing better choice of options between corporate businesses like Subway here in the SUB is damaging to smaller companies like this that make better sandwiches than Subway, to be honest,” Maile said. “I think it goes to show the nature of capitalism is incredibly violent, and the University is complicit in that.”
David Lynch is a staff reporter at The Daily Lobo. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.