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By Liz Highleyman
Responding to the long-term vacancies of two neighborhood grocery stores--Real Food Company on 24th Street and Mikeytom Market on Church Street--more than 40 residents packed St. Philip's Parish Hall on Jan. 12 to talk about bringing a community-oriented grocery store to Noe Valley.
With Bell Market--now the only full-service grocery in the neighborhood--currently up for sale, "We don't need another grocery store vacant for two years," said Friends of Noe Valley President Richard May, explaining why the meeting was held.
The grocery store summit was co-sponsored by the Friends, Upper Noe Neighbors, and Noe Valleyans for Community and Social Justice (NVCSJ). Leaders from each group sat on a panel, which also included District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty.
Dufty began with an overview of the present grocery crisis. The last word from the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. was that it is looking to sell several stores in its Ralphs division, including the 24th Street Bell and the Castro and South Van Ness Cala Foods. Meanwhile, Nutraceutical Corporation, owner of the Real Food Company, which has been closed since August 2003, has promised the neighborhood it will remodel and reopen a health food store, but the company has yet to file any new permit applications.
Dufty said Nutraceutical was still not responding to his requests for a meeting to discuss Real Food's future. "I'm tired of trying to deal with them," he said. "I'm ready to ignore them for a while."
Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors, expressed similar frustration about the lack of a store along outer Church Street. Mikeytom, located at Church and Day, was forced to close in 2003 after the building's owner demanded a large rent increase. The long-term vacancy has "really left a blight on the neighborhood," Rosen said.
Former Mikeytom co-owner Tom Maravilla, who attended the meeting, told the group he and his partner, Mike Meischke, definitely were interested in operating another grocery store in the neighborhood. "In my fantasy world, we'd take over all three," Maravilla said, referring to Bell on 24th and the Castro and South Van Ness Cala stores.
Maravilla later said he had spoken with the owners of Drewes Brothers meat market about developing a cooperative venture. "I think we would be successful," he said, "because we know what the neighborhood wants and we know how to listen."
Moving Forward in the Bell Space
As the meeting wore on, the participants appeared to reach consensus: Given the impasse with Nutraceutical and the Church Street store, the most positive course might be to seek a community-friendly grocer to move into Bell's space.
Peter Gabel, of NVCSJ, who had talked briefly about his group's ongoing efforts to pressure Nutraceutical to negotiate with the community and offer restitution to Real Food's fired employees, displayed a thick stack of letters from Noe Valley residents pledging to boycott a reopened Real Food. But, he said, he had no appetite for a boycott "while 24th Street still needs resuscitation."
Agreeing with the others at the table, Gabel said he hoped the three groups, working in concert with Supervisor Dufty, could "form a force from the neighborhood and coalesce around a good buyer for Bell." If the new store were successful, Gabel said to much applause, "Nutraceutical might be priced out of the market and forced to move."
"Nothing would make this neighborhood happier than to get a good, locally owned grocery in that space," Dufty agreed. But, he cautioned, "We have to get real pretty fast and put some money on the table. I'm worried if we hang on too long, Kroger will move ahead with someone else."
Meeting participants brought up the possibility of getting financial backing from the city, as well as involving a local bank such as Sterling. Dufty said he would approach the Mayor's Office of Economic Development to see what kinds of assistance might be available.
The group then formed a steering committee, composed of the four panelists, who said they'd solicit support from the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and start surveying neighborhood residents to determine what they wanted in a new store.
Several people stressed the need for a reasonably priced market that would serve residents at all income levels. "Everyone in Noe Valley isn't a millionaire," said May. "Whoever comes in needs to understand who we really are."
The next grocery summit will take place Monday, Feb. 16, from 7:30 to 9 p.m., at St. Philip's Hall on Diamond Street between 24th and Elizabeth. Interested parties can offer their input at the meeting or send comments by e-mail to email@example.com or by mail to Friends of Noe Valley, P.O. Box 460953, San Francisco, CA 94146.