Noe Valley Voice October 2006

Real Food Co. Still Vacant After Three Years

By Liz Highleyman

The three-year anniversary of the closure of the 24th Street Real Food Company grocery store came and went in late August, with few signs that long-promised renovations are moving forward.

"It is a blight on the neighborhood," Friends of Noe Valley president Richard May said of the continued closure.

"I'm very disappointed," added Carol Yenne, outgoing president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "It's a drag on the neighborhood small business environment."

As Voice readers will recall, Real Food's Utah-based parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation, shuttered the store and terminated some 30 employees over Labor Day weekend in 2003, saying they intended to do a badly needed remodeling.

Work on the building started and stopped several times over the ensuing years, as Nutraceutical and building owners Jane and Kimball Allen sparred over who should shoulder the cost of repairs.

At the same time, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty and neighborhood activists attempted repeatedly--but with little success--to engage the company in negotiations. They sent numerous letters urging Nutraceutical to provide a just settlement for the fired workers and to consider the neighborhood's wishes in redoing the store.

In November 2005, Nutraceutical purchased the building at 3939 24th Street from the Allens as part of a legal settlement. That same month, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled in favor of the ex-employees in an unfair labor practices lawsuit, but Nutraceutical appealed the decision.

Olivia Garcia of the NLRB's San Francisco office told the Voice that the company's appeal is now before the national board in Washington, D.C. "They're still in the process of deciding," she said. "The board does not have an estimate of when a decision might be made."

As far as future activism goes, things are in a wait-and-see mode, according to Kim Rohrbach, one of the former employees.

"Thus far, Nutraceutical has changed nothing in its stance to allow for a rapprochement with the 2,000 or so residents who have repeatedly petitioned the corporation and suggested good-faith actions it might take to end its dispute with the community," she said.

"If Nutraceutical were to drop its appeal, agree to a policy of neutrality regarding future union-organizing efforts, and offer something up to the local businesses that have been adversely impacted, most of the corporation's opponents would likely view such actions as ground-breaking and significant."

Nutraceutical Maintains It Still Has Plans

After Nutraceutical took ownership of the property, many local residents and merchants hoped they might see some progress toward the store's reopening. While the windows of the storefront remain shrouded in paper, some neighbors reported glimpses of activity in and around the building last winter and again this past summer.

Nutraceutical attributed the activity to planning for bigger and better renovations, since the company now owns the property outright.

"My client remains committed to reopening the store," Nutraceutical attorney and Noe Valley resident Stephen Hirschfeld told the Voice. "Now that they have purchased the store, they have more latitude. They are taking a lot more time and going through a much more significant construction decision. They want to make it state-of-the-art."

"We are currently working with a local architect and reviewing possible new plans for the building," added Sergio Diaz of Nutraceutical, formerly the marketing director of the 24th Street store. "We are looking forward to the new plans, since they are beneficial improvements."

Big Dark Space on 24th Street

But after three years of watching and waiting, the store's neighbors are not counting on construction at Real Food starting anytime soon.

"I was told by the company a year ago that last year would be the last holiday season with a big dark space in the middle of 24th Street," said Yenne. "But it doesn't look like anything will happen in the next few months."

Ex-employee Rohrbach is doubtful that Nutraceutical is truly committed to reopening.

"It looks like Nutraceutical is still biding its time and hedging its bets, waiting to see what happens with the NLRB appeal in Washington, and maybe also waiting to see what's going to happen with the Bell Market space across the street," she said. (See story on Bell Market's new ownership, starting page 1.)

Dufty is hoping for the best, noting that the company has hired a permit consultant as well as an architect. As of late September, however, the city's Department of Building Inspection web site showed no recent permit activity for the 24th Street site.

"I am hopeful that we're going to see some movement," Dufty told the Voice. "It's a sad anniversary: the closure is not good for the ex-employees, not good for 24th Street, and not good for the neighborhood."