Noe Valley Voice February 2009

Goodbye Bell Market, Hello Whole Foods

By Corrie M. Anders

Bell Market, a Noe Valley grocery store that opened in an era when meat-and-potatoes was standard fare, closes its doors permanently this month, giving way to the gourmet grocery Whole Foods Market.

The end comes Feb. 14--exactly four decades after Dominick Bell and two of his brothers began selling vegetables, meats, and other groceries at their self-named supermarket at 3950 24th Street.

Whole Foods won't open immediately at the Bell location. That's because the new operators say they must first renovate the building, to transform the aging structure into a contemporary showcase for their unique blend of organic, locally grown foods and preservative-free products.

The $5 million remodeling project will take five to six months, so the earliest Whole Foods could open appears to be August. During the lull, Noe Valley residents who need a full-service grocery store may be forced to travel outside the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, several local businesses are expanding their product lines to fill the void. And since December, Supervisor Bevan Dufty and community leaders have been exploring ways to supply groceries to seniors and disabled residents who have relied on Bell's proximity. (See "Small Groceries" at right.)

Eager Anticipation

This latest link in Whole Foods' national chain of upscale stores has been a source of eager anticipation among many Noe Valley residents and merchants.

"I'm really excited," said 24th Street resident Azia Yenne Bolos, married mother of three children. "I think it's going to be nice to have a really nice grocery store in the neighborhood. You'll feel proud to come in and get food to serve to your family, friends, and neighbors."

"It will be excellent for the neighborhood and great for nearby retail," agreed Heather Bruchs, who owns Urban Nest, a gift store on 24th near Sanchez, across from Bell. "I'm very excited for them to come in."

But Whole Foods' well-known reputation for top-shelf goods also has caused anxiety among budget-conscious locals.

Several neighborhood groups hosted meetings with representatives from Whole Foods during December and January. Another community meeting is planned for Feb. 18, 7:30 p.m., at St. Philip's Church.

"People expressed a desire to get the store opened as soon as possible. To have that store empty is going to be tough for people," said Debra Niemann, executive director of the Noe Valley Association, the community benefit district on 24th Street.

The groups also pushed Whole Foods "to avoid competition with surrounding merchants," said Gwen Sanderson, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association.

"In the meeting we had [which was joined by Friends of Noe Valley], we left with zero concerns about the project, which is really rare," said Sanderson.

Dufty Greases the Pan

Getting Whole Foods open as quickly as possible has been a primary focus, considering what happened after the Real Food Company abruptly shut down in August 2003. The loss of foot traffic to and from Real Food--which has never reopened--hurt many businesses along the 24th Street commercial corridor.

Dufty said he was closely monitoring the permit process for Whole Foods, to watch for any bureaucratic problems that could delay construction.

"My goal is that the market be open no later than Sept 1. If they can gain any time, that will be great," said Dufty. "It's in Whole Foods' interest to open quickly and in the city's interest to have that market there and not cause a negative impact on businesses and the community," Dufty said.

The Austin-based retail chain already has three stores across San Francisco. In addition to the Noe Valley location, Whole Foods is trying to open an outlet on Stanyan Street in the Haight and recently signed an agreement to establish a market at the recently vacated S&C Ford dealership at Market and Dolores streets.

"My district will go from zero to possibly two Whole Foods in the next couple of years," said Dufty.

New Store Half the Normal Size

Whole Foods submitted its first round of Noe Valley permit requests to City Hall on Dec. 11. The city planning commission will hold what is expected to be a routine public hearing Feb. 19 on the firm's request for a "conditional use" permit to operate a grocery on the site.

After closing to the public in mid-February, Bell will spend the next two weeks removing stock and equipment and checking for any hazardous materials on the premises. Bell officially ends its long-term rental agreement with the property's owner Feb. 28, and Whole Foods will take over the next day with a 20-year lease.

"It will be gutted out to bare bones, and we'll go back in and put in a smaller version of a Whole Foods," said company representative Glen Moon, who is vice president in charge of business development. Bathrooms also will be upgraded during the renovation, and the store will be designed to accommodate disabled shoppers.

Because the 18,000-square-foot facility contains less than half the space usually found in a Whole Foods store, Moon said the 24th Street facility would not carry clothing or host a full-service, sit-down café as it does at many of the chain's larger groceries.

"They're just going to have food," Sanderson corroborated. "Most of their stores have clothing and kitchenwares and all kinds of other products. This store is too small to have that."

Moon added that the store's space limitation "works to their advantage," referring to Noe Valley boutiques that might offer similar products to Whole Foods' larger stores.

Cheese Company, Drewes Worried

Still, the owners of the 24th Street Cheese Company and Drewes Brothers Meats on Church Street were less than sanguine about the presence of Whole Foods on their turf.

"I don't think it's good news for me. It's bad news," said cheese shop owner Charles Kung, whose store carries 300 different kinds of imported and domestic cheeses. Whole Foods, he said, will offer many of the same selections only a block from his location near Sanchez.

"No matter what, we cannot compete with a big store like Whole Foods...with many of their prices and the deals they're getting [from wholesale distributors]. They can easily drive us out of business. It will be very, very hard. I'm not optimistic."

"I'm definitely worried," said Josh Epple, whose refrigerated display cases were stocked recently with free-range chicken, fresh fish, beef, and sausages. "When I heard that they were going in, I said, 'Oh boy.'"

Epple said, "[Whole Foods] was my competitor when they weren't up the street."

And in the current weak economy, the store's close proximity to his butcher shop might be the death knell that says "we can't do it anymore."

"I wish Bell were staying," said Epple.

Some Will Miss Bell

Liberty Street resident Robert Brust echoed that statement, saying he felt the store offered good products at reasonable prices.

"I like Bell Market. I think people are going to miss it," Brust said, while plunking three bags of groceries into the flatbed of his pickup truck in Bell's parking lot.

Brust said he would probably switch his allegiance to DeLano's IGA Market on 18th Street in the Castro rather than shop at Whole Foods. "I'm a professional chef and I'm not easily won over by Whole Foods," he said. "They're not the beginning and the end in terms of food."

Besides, said Brust, "I'm watching my pennies."

Mercedes Marenco, 88, said she would miss the convenience and community Bell Market provides. A resident of 25th Street for 53 years, Marenco has been shopping at Bell since it opened. She vividly remembers when she could purchase 10 pounds of pears for $1.

Several times a week, Marenco would make the two-block walk to 24th Street to visit with friends and merchants at the drugstore and the bank, and then pick up groceries at Bell.

"There was always a sense of community, and Bell was a part of that," said Marenco's daughter, Elizabeth Marenco. "It's sad that it's not going to be there."

Another neighbor, Despina Kokalis, said Bell has been her supermarket of choice for most of the 48 years she's lived on 25th Street. Since she doesn't drive, the 83-year-old resident walks to Bell, often returning home with her shopping cart.

"It's the best store. It's very nice," she said in a heavy Greek accent. "I'm very sorry that it's closing. Now I don't know what I will do."

Sad Farewell to Employees

The final day, Feb. 14, also will be a poignant farewell for Bell's 26 employees, including one who has been with the company for nearly four decades. Nine others have served Noe residents for at least two to three decades.

Organizers of the weekly Noe Valley Farmers' Market plan a public salute to the grocery workers with a bon voyage cake and brief ceremony on Feb. 7. The tribute takes place at 11 a.m. during the market's regular Saturday market at 24th and Vicksburg.

"These are people we have seen for one, two, and three decades. They're part of our lives," said Leslie Crawford, a charter founder of the five-year-old Farmers' Market. "We want to say thank you for so many years of service to the neighborhood."

Not all Bell's employees will lose their jobs once the store closes, according to Michael Sharpe, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union, Local 648.

"We have a collective bargaining agreement that says the company is obliged to take the most senior employees and place them in survivor stores," he said.

Those longer-tenured employees will transfer to Kroger's Cala Foods store at California and Hyde streets, according to Sharpe, who said it was not clear immediately how many workers that would include.

As for the rest, Sharpe said the union would "do our best to find work for them in San Francisco," and "if they live outside San Francisco, to reach out to those local unions" for help.

Moon said Whole Foods plans to employ between 80 and 100 workers at the 24th Street store. Bell employees are welcome to apply at Whole Foods, but he said the company had "no agreement to take them on."

Bell Supermarkets have been a part of San Francisco history since the Bell brothers launched their business in the 1940s. They expanded to Noe Valley in 1968. A series of mergers left Bell and Cala stores in the hands of first Ralphs Supermarket, then Kroger, a national grocery retailer based in Cincinnati.

Bell's fate in Noe Valley was sealed in 2005 when Kroger shifted its business strategy and began paring its Bay Area holdings. Mollie Stone, DeLano's IGA supermarkets, and other groceries considered the Bell site before Whole Foods landed the location.


The public will have at least two opportunities this month to learn more about Whole Foods' plans to replace Bell Market on 24th Street.

On Wednesday, Feb. 18, the Noe Valley Democratic Club will hold a town hall that will include a discussion of Bell and Whole Foods. Among the panelists are Glen Moon of Whole Foods, Supervisor Bevan Dufty, and Debra Niemann, executive director of the Noe Valley Association.

The 7:30 p.m. meeting will be held at St. Philip's Church, 725 Diamond St., between Elizabeth and 24th streets.

On Thursday, Feb. 19, the San Francisco Planning Commission agenda includes Whole Foods' request for a "conditional use" permit. The hearing starts at 1:30 p.m. in Room 400 at City Hall.