Noe Valley Voice October 2008

Five Years Later, Real Food Still Empty

By Liz Highleyman

In October 2003, the Noe Valley Voice first reported on the abrupt closure of the Real Food Company store on 24th Street. Five years later, hundreds of Noe newcomers and countless school-age children born in the intervening years can't even remember that a popular natural food grocery once occupied the heart of the neighborhood commercial strip.

"It's as if it's fallen into a black hole," said District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who has tried to facilitate the store's reopening or replacement. "I don't have a week that goes by when somebody doesn't ask about it."

As readers will recall, Real Food's Utah-based parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation, shuttered the store and terminated 30 workers over Labor Day weekend in 2003, stating that it planned to remodel and reopen within several months. Some of the former employees disputed this claim, arguing that they were fired for attempting to organize a union.

Over the past five years, work on the building has started and stopped several times, Nutraceutical purchased the property as part of a legal settlement with former owners Jane and Kimball Allen, and an unfair labor practices lawsuit has gone before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Neighborhood activists, with Dufty's help, have attempted to negotiate with Nutraceutical to ensure a just settlement for the fired employees and to have some influence on the future of the store.

When the Voice last published an update in May 2007, Sergio Diaz, marketing director for Nutraceutical's Fresh Organics chain, said the company intended to tear down the building and replace it with a multi-use project that would include a grocery store on the lower floor, possibly with some type of community space and residential units above.

Where Do Things Stand Now?

Nutraceutical did file a conditional use application to demolish and rebuild in the spring of 2007, according to Rick Crawford of the San Francisco Planning Department, but things soon came to a standstill. Informed by the Voice that neighbors were wondering what was going on, he replied, "So am I!"

Crawford said he sent a letter to the company's architect, Brian Lyles, in September 2007 requesting further details about the proposed project. Nutraceutical officials told him it would take some time to get him further information, and he hasn't heard anything since.

Diaz and Nutraceutical Chief Financial Officer Cory McQueen (who replaced former CFO Les Brown) did not return phone calls and e-mails from the Voice seeking clarification of their plans, including whether the current economic crisis or the prospect of Whole Foods moving into the Bell Market space across the street had led to any changes. (See Rumors, September 2008, or "Whole Foods Could Be Coming to Bell Market," September 2007, Noe Valley Voice.)

"It is still my understanding that my client intends to renovate the store," said local attorney Stephen Hirschfeld, who is representing Nutraceutical in the long-running labor dispute. "As I understand, it is still in the planning and permitting stages."

Dufty, too, said he had left numerous messages with Diaz over the past couple months with no reply.

"It's kind of an unbelievable situation," he said. "I have bent over backwards to open the door and ask that they make an effort to work with the community, but they have not given it any consideration. I try to think of what else I could possibly do, but I have not been able to devise a strategy."

Based on her discussions with local store owners and city officials, Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association co-president Gwen Sanderson told the Voice, "From what I understand secondhand, they're just dragging out the permitting process. I don't think there's been any improvement in the timeline."

As for the labor lawsuit, an NLRB judge ruled in favor of the former employees on nearly all counts in November 2005. A three-member panel upheld most aspects of that decision in July 2007, ordering that the terminated workers be awarded back pay and offered jobs at the company's other local stores, but Nutraceutical filed an appeal that is still pending before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The labor board requested that the parties enter into mediation, according to Jill Coffman, NLRB deputy regional attorney for Region 20. Hirschfeld and former Real Food employee Kim Rohrbach indicated that both sides had met with a mediator, but there had been no settlement to date.

Neighbors Look to the Future

Stymied by Nutraceutical's stonewalling, local residents and merchants have shifted their focus to projects that make a positive impact on the community, including the popular Noe Valley Farmers' Market, which started as a way to provide fresh produce in the neighborhood in the wake of the Real Food closure.

Elizabeth Street resident Peter Gabel, who spearheaded the community response in 2003, said the Farmers' Market board discussed doing something to mark the fifth anniversary of the closing, but decided instead to put their energy into celebrating the unveiling of Mona Caron's murals overlooking the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot, the Harvest Festival coming up Oct. 25, and the market's fifth birthday in early December.

"We want to emphasize the beautiful community creations that came out of the Real Food closure rather than dwell on the bitterness of the past," he said.

For months after Real Food's closure, nearby merchants lamented the loss of foot traffic and the resulting decline in business. During the first year alone, six stores on the block of 24th Street between Sanchez and Noe closed or changed hands.

"People used to say [before fall 2003], 'I was just going to Real Food and now look at me, I'm buying two pairs of shoes!'" recalls Veronica Ruedrich, longtime manager of Astrid's Rabat Shoes. By the following winter, customers were saying the street looked like a ghost town.

But five years later, the surviving merchants have adjusted well to the change. And it's rare to find a commercial vacancy on the block.

"At this point, we've kind of recovered in terms of foot traffic," Ruedrich said. "I definitely hope that something else goes in there. I feel strongly that Nutraceutical had absolutely no regard for the effect they would have on the community."

"I don't know how they can afford to just keep it empty," said Sanderson, of the Merchants Association. "My hope is that if Whole Foods really does come into the Bell Market space, they will not want to sit across the street from a vacant building and will not be able to keep their hands off it. But for now, we're stuck with the same situation, waiting for something to happen."