Jose Ortiz, co-owner of La Perla, inside the restaurant's new location at 3409 Fruitvale Avenue. Credit: Ricky Rodas

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Jose Ortiz and his son Gabriel have been planning for over a year to move their popular Dimond restaurant, La Perla, from its current location in a convenience store on MacArthur Boulevard to a bigger space at 3409 Fruitvale Ave. The highly anticipated grand reopening of is planned for Sunday, Feb. 14.

But the reopening may not happen as planned. The Alameda County Department of Environmental Health is requiring that Ortiz replace the kitchen floor in the new restaurant space, which used to be a Subway sandwich shop. According to Ortiz, the requirement came as a surprise in December, after he’d already spent over $80,000 on renovations.

In an interview with The Oaklandside, Ortiz said that in order to comply, he’ll have to cover the entire kitchen area with an approved epoxy flooring that could cost as much as $14,000.

The current flooring was installed by the Subway that previously occupied the space, and Ortiz said he feels it’s unfair that his small business has to pay for such an expensive upgrade when the corporate-owned chain was allowed to operate with what was apparently a substandard floor.

While the Subway was dinged by health inspectors over the years for various food safety violations, according to the Alameda County Department of Public Health, the sandwich shop wasn’t required to have the epoxy flooring because it wasn’t using a kitchen to cook food.

“The change in ownership and change in facility type, from assembling sandwiches to cooking, prompted the requirement for plans and any necessary upgrades to meet code requirements,” wrote county health department spokesperson Neetu Balram in an email to The Oaklandside.

According to a Dec. 4 letter the health department sent to Ortiz and his architect, Andre Wainwright, the agency had approved all of the improvements to the restaurant, but added the requirement that cooking, service, prep, and storage areas have the epoxy flooring. The health department’s letter stated that without the new floor included, the city would not approve building permits. Epoxy flooring protects the underlying surface from wear and tear such as moisture, stains, grease, and cracks.

“The city depends on them. If the health department doesn’t approve my floor plan, the city won’t issue me a permit,” Ortiz said.

Financing the restaurant’s move about one block away from its old location has been expensive. Ortiz previously launched a fundraising campaign and raised over $16,000, but he said he doesn’t have any more money to spend, and he said he doesn’t want to ask for more help.

“The community loves us,” Ortiz said. “But I feel ashamed to go back to the community and ask for more money. If I had the money to put in the flooring I would, but I don’t.”

Ortiz contacted District 5 Councilmember Noel Gallo to ask for help in navigating the confusing permitting process.

“La Perla Puerto Rican cuisine is a key business here in Oakland and has the opportunity to grow, and the city, state, and the county should be willing to do anything they can to help during this COVID-19 challenge,” Gallo told The Oaklandside.

Gallo said he’s received calls from other business owners who are asking for help. “He’s not the only one going through this experience with the county right now,” said Gallo.

Ortiz said he doesn’t plan on waiting for the county’s permission to reopen, and that he’ll go ahead with the launch on Feb. 14 as planned.

“I don’t want to fight, I’m tired,” he said. “I want to run the business here with my family without all these headaches.”

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.