Noe Valley Voice March 2004

Neighbors Still Longing for Great Groceries

By Liz Highleyman

With the 24th Street Real Food store still shuttered six months after parent company Nutraceutical Corporation abruptly fired nearly 30 workers and closed the doors, Noe Valleyans have grown increasingly impatient at the lack of a quality organic grocery in the neighborhood. And to date, efforts to engage the company in a dialogue have led to little but frustration.

Participants at a community meeting on Feb. 12 made clear their desire to see Real Food leave the neighborhood, ideally to be replaced by a local owner or community co-op that would maintain the same high quality. An impromptu straw poll of the nearly 100 attendees revealed unanimous support for asking the Utah-based corporation to give up the 24th Street property.

On Feb. 19, neighborhood organizers sent a letter to this effect, with 150 signatures, to Nutraceutical CEO Frank W. Gay. "We are writing to respectfully ask that your company leave our neighborhood and allow us to proceed with plans to initiate a grocery store that is locally owned and reflective of the values of our neighborhood," read the letter. "The fact that you have not accepted repeated offers of mediation...makes it clear that our respective positions are too different for us to ever reach a resolution that will work for both sides."

Organizers and ex-employees have demanded that the company rehire the fired workers and agree to recognize their union. "Justice for the workers is an inherent part of the necessary outcome," insisted organizer Peter Gabel. "If they intend to stay, they will have to address the social justice issue."

Given the lack of progress in negotiations, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty has abandoned his efforts to mediate with the company.

"They've done enough damage. They need to walk away," Dufty told the Voice. "Others are ready to come forward and use the space. I think we can come up with something better."

One possibility: a new incarnation of Mikeytom Market, which closed its Church Street operation last May after its rent skyrocketed.

Co-owner Tom Maravilla told the Voice that he envisioned a store "like Mikeytom, but with enhancements such as a meat market and a deli. It could incorporate all the good things about Real Food, but with the Mikeytom touch."

Maravilla said he was open to a union and to bringing in former Real Food employees. "Those workers know the clientele," he said. "I hope some of them are still around."

But Maravilla acknowledged that many challenges--financial and otherwise--lay ahead. "Lots of stars would have to align to make this happen," he conceded.

Others favor a community co-op, expanding on the weekly Saturday farmers' market that sprung up in December to help fill the gap left by Real Food. (Market organizers recently received a 13-week extension to their temporary permit, which expired at the end of February, and are pursuing a permanent conditional use permit from the city.) Roger Sanders of the Mayor's Office of Community Development, who attended the Feb. 12 meeting, said the city could offer advice, technical assistance, and help with obtaining loans.

"We'd love to see a high-quality, full-service organic grocer that treats its employees well," said Debra Niemann, speaking for the residents' group Friends of Noe Valley. "We need a grocer that appreciates the sometimes idiosyncratic needs of the neighborhood. But we can't pursue anything else as long as [Nutraceutical] is holding the space."

For its part, Nutraceutical does not appear to have any plans to leave the neighborhood.

According to Marketing Director Sergio Diaz, the company discovered substantial structural problems with the building and is currently negotiating with building owners Jane and Kimball Allen on how to solve them. Nutraceutical holds an option to lease the property for 12 years, renewable in three-year increments.

"Our intentions are not to leave," Diaz told the Voice. "We're committed to this project. It's taking longer than expected, but as soon as we solve these problems, we'll be able to face everyone and try to address the majority of concerns."

Will the community welcome the company back?

"I believe if they reopen, the store will close within six months," predicted Dufty. "They should make a good financial decision and not waste their money doing the renovations."

Niemann took a different view. "People will definitely go back," she said. "Convenience always outweighs politics. The company knows that, and they'll wait it out. It will take a while, but people will forgive them."

Meanwhile, some local activists have suggested a boycott of the store, should it reopen, as well as of Nutraceutical's vitamin products.

"We have the power to affect their pocketbooks and reputation," said Real Food ex-employee Kim Rohrbach. "They cannot reopen and do the kind of business they're accustomed to doing. They don't really represent a world view that's in line with the views of people who shop at natural food stores." m