The facade of a restaurant, painted brick red with several archways. A sign at the top says "Persian Nights at Bacheesos."
Persian Nights restaurant on Grand Avenue in Oakland. Credit: Roselyn Romero

In 2017, Alameda resident Amir Asli and his girlfriend were having a glass of wine around midnight outside of Bacheesos—the Mediterranean buffet he opened in 2007 on Grand Avenue across the street from Children’s Fairyland—when a young man approached them.

“Can I use your bathroom?” he asked.

“Sorry, the restaurant is closed,” Asli replied.

The man said he needed to go urgently, offering to pay $20. Asli, refusing the payment, waved the man in. When the young man returned, he thanked Asli and walked away.

But when Asli’s girlfriend went to use the restroom shortly after, he heard her scream for help. The bathroom was on fire.

Soon, firefighters arrived at Bacheesos and quickly extinguished the flames. Officers with the Oakland Police Department also came out to get a statement from Asli and his girlfriend.

Roughly one hour after the fire was put out, Asli and a police officer stayed outside of the restaurant to chat. Out of the corner of his eye, Asli noticed a man staring at them from a parked car across the street. Suspecting something was off, Asli notified the officer, who called for backup.

The backup officer arrived, removed the man from the parked vehicle, and brought him to the restaurant. It was the same man who had asked to use the restroom. According to Asli, he confessed to setting the bathroom on fire.

“He basically wanted to see the place go up in flames,” Asli said. “He took the toilet seat covers, made a ball out of them, put it underneath the toilet paper [dispenser], and set that on fire. It [took] about two or three minutes for everything to catch on fire.”

Several months later, Asli said the young man’s grandmother came to the restaurant to apologize. He decided not to press charges.

“I felt that this kid really needed help, and he’s not going to get it in jail or prison,” he said.

But managing the restaurant only became more difficult from there, said Asli.

Grappling with robberies, burglaries, and arson

The buffet closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it wasn’t until nearly two years later that Asli and business partner Farshad Moradi reopened it as a sit-down restaurant with a new name—Persian Nights at Bacheesos—and a revamped dinner menu centered around Persian cuisine. Asli also maintained ownership of the adjoining coffee shop, 1888 Coffee Station, which he’d opened in 2017.

According to Asli, his businesses have been broken into 13 times since 2018, with five break-ins this year alone. During one of the burglaries this year, three masked men, armed with pistols, used crowbars to pry open the entrance to the coffee shop, shattered the interior security alarm system, and stole an undisclosed amount of cash from a safe.

Approximately three months after that incident, a friend called Asli after they saw flames on the Persian Nights patio. It appeared that the restaurant was set on fire, again. There was no investigation into the cause of the fire, according to Asli.

“If the fire department had not arrived sooner—if they had arrived just five minutes later—the business would have been in shambles,” he said.

Persian Nights’ brand-new mahogany doors, which Asli installed less than eight months ago, have also sustained damage from several burglary attempts.

As the break-ins and robberies became more commonplace, Asli stopped calling 911 and reporting the incidents to the Oakland Police Department—partly due to the slow response times, but also because he feared that an uptick in crimes reported in the neighborhood might cause insurance carriers to increase rates for his and others’ small businesses in the area. He also stopped filing claims with his commercial insurance company, he said, fearing they might decline to renew his policy.

“Once I report it, I won’t even be able to get insurance, and if I don’t have insurance, I can’t be in business,” he said. “It’s a sad point, but it’s the truth. And the truth is, there is nothing we can do.”

Without help from insurance, Asli estimates future repairs could cost $10,000 to $15,000 out of pocket. But beyond the financial burden, the break-ins have also taken a toll on Asli’s mental health.

“The day after payroll, I sit at the front of the restaurant and watch the surveillance cameras, waiting for a car to drive by with men inside with guns to rob us,” he said.

About two weeks ago, a weary Asli decided to relinquish ownership of Persian Nights to Moradi, the business partner with whom he reopened the restaurant in 2022. The cornerstone eatery will remain open and continue to serve up authentic Mediterranean cuisine, such as tahdig (Persian crispy rice), ghormeh sabzi (Iranian herb stew), and lollipop lamb chops—just under new management.

“He has fresh blood and more energy than I do,” Asli said, referring to the new owner of Persian Nights. “But for me, as a seasoned restaurateur, I am just done with this. No matter how much you love what you’re doing, you have to make that decision.”

26 years serving Persian food in Berkeley and Oakland

Asli first launched Bacheesos as a family-operated restaurant in 1997 on Dwight Way and San Pablo Avenue in southwest Berkeley. He said it rapidly exploded in popularity, thanks to its organic produce offerings, reasonable prices, and a plethora of healthy vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. Though Asli described the surrounding neighborhood at the original location as “rough,” Bacheesos flourished.

Ten years later, the restaurant’s Oakland location opened, with locals and visitors raving about the bottomless mimosas, weekend brunch menu, and classic Persian dishes. In October 2019, the original Berkeley location shut down, but the Oakland establishment thrived with new and returning patrons.

Asli’s recent experiences with break-ins and other security issues have become all too common among longtime small business owners in Oakland, according to Shari Godinez, executive director of the Koreatown Northgate Community Benefit District. She said community members in her district have seen a rise in commercial burglaries and vehicle break-ins in recent months.

“It makes people not want to go out,” Godinez said. “So even though the peak of COVID is over, now people aren’t willing to come out anymore because of the crime.”

In her conversations with local business owners, Godinez said many of them reported their sales have decreased as much as one-half compared to pre-pandemic levels. And as small businesses continue to lose patrons—combined with dwindling foot traffic along what used to be bustling business corridors—owners are often forced to make a tough choice: to stay or go.

‘There needs to be a more comprehensive approach’

Many community members—including Nigel Jones, owner of Kingston 11 Cuisine and Calabash, located in Uptown Oakland about half a mile from Persian Nights—believe public safety needs to be addressed holistically rather than on a surface level. He said crime doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it manifests as a result of “deprivation and a lack of support and resources.”

“We need to start reinvesting in younger folks and not just throw everybody in jail. That’s not going to solve any problems. It’s just going to create more folks who go through the criminal justice system,” he said.

Moving forward, Jones said he hopes small business owners, law enforcement, city officials, and residents can put political differences aside and work collectively to tackle broader issues of public health, youth violence prevention, and economic sustainability.

“We have to get away from all the rhetoric and finger-pointing because all that does is prevent us from finding solutions,” added Jones. “There needs to be a more comprehensive approach.”

As for Asli, he’ll continue to own and operate the coffee shop (which also boasts a hearty Mediterranean bistro) next to Persian Nights, along with Bacheesos, which is now a catering company. But that doesn’t mean he’s not anguished by giving up the restaurant. He says it took years of crime, heartache, and contemplation for him to relinquish ownership of the Adams Point buffet he opened 16 years ago.

“It’s sad because Oakland has a lot of potential,” Asli said. “The sooner Oakland finds a way to protect these businesses, the better Oakland will be.”

Roselyn Romero covers small businesses for The Oaklandside as a 2023-24 Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow. Previously, she was an investigative intern at NBC Bay Area and the inaugural intern for the global investigations team of The Associated Press through a partnership with the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Roselyn graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and minors in Spanish, ethnic studies, and women's and gender studies. She is a proud daughter of Filipino immigrants and was born and raised in Oxnard, California.