| March 2012
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By Tim Innes
Customer Paula Pagano contemplates the beauty of a glass lamp with design consultant Wilson Campos at Kohler Jones furniture store, one of several businesses along Church Street looking for light at the end of the recession tunnel. Photo by Pamela Gerard
“You can’t just open your door and expect people to rush in,” says Celia Sack, proprietor of Omnivore Books on Food. “You’ve got to give them something of value, something extra, to keep people coming back.”
Words to live by for any business owner, especially those on Church Street, long in the shadow of its better-known neighbor, 24th Street.
But thanks to popular shops like Omnivore and acclaimed restaurants like La Ciccia and Incanto, the nine-block stretch of Church between Clipper and 30th streets is coming into its own as a destination.
Not that there aren’t challenges. Despite the J-Church line, which carries thousands of riders daily, foot traffic on Church Street remains a fraction of that on 24th Street. That is due in part to Church Street’s mix of residential and commercial properties, with the latter concentrated at the south end, known as Upper Noe. By contrast, the 24th Street strip is virtually all commercial, anchored by the Whole Foods market between Sanchez and Noe streets.
So, Church Street merchants go the extra mile in hopes that shoppers will, too.
For Omnivore, 3885A Cesar Chavez St. at Church, events such as author readings, baking contests, and wine tastings supplement the 3-1/2-year-old shop’s sales of new and vintage cookbooks. Shoppers also drop by to purchase fresh eggs that Sack gets from farmers in West Marin. “Business is good,” she said.
Around the corner at 1451 Church, Noe Valley Pet Co.’s eye-catching windows entice customers, who bring their dogs along in hopes that a picture of Rover will be featured in one of the store’s newspaper ads, which are headlined “I want to go where everyone knows my name.”
Paula Harris, who co-owns the shop with Sack, says nuzzling the neighbors has helped business stay perky. “And we have the most wonderful employees.”
Sowing Seeds Here and There
A block south, Loft 1513 offers what it calls “unique clothing and accessories by local artists,” including owner Larissa Verdussen’s Rag Doll line of apparel, made, if not from rags, from remnants or repurposed materials. With sales having jumped 25 percent last year, Verdussen is moving the business to the much larger space on 24th Street recently vacated by Urban Nest.
“I had been looking for a larger place, but there wasn’t anything that met our needs on Church,” Verdussen said. “When I saw the ‘Moving Sale’ signs at Urban Nest, I called right away.”
Still, she said, the key to keeping customers coming back is “providing personal service.”
Across the street, at 1504 Church, is Susan Prentice’s Independent Nature, a specialty nursery that caters to backyard gardeners with plants, seeds, tools, and books. Don’t be put off by the dark, tunnel-like entrance; a sun-drenched garden filled with flowers and trees awaits you at the rear of the store.
Prentice said her 2-1/2-year-old business is doing well, thanks to a loyal neighborhood following that she cultivates with Saturday afternoon demonstrations on such subjects as composting and seed-sowing.
‘Good on the Weekends’
Also new to the neighborhood is Curator Boutique at 1767 Church. Opened two years ago, the shop is an offshoot of the fashion-design company that owners Stacy Rodgers and Deirdre Nagayama started in 2001. They sell their clothing in the shop, online, and in as many as 75 other stores, including Rabat, Isso, Heroine, and Hangr 16.
Nagayama, a Noe Valley native and the mother of two, runs the online and wholesale operations, while Rodgers, who grew up in Forest Hill, oversees the shop.
In addition to clothing and jewelry, the store carries soaps, cards, tea towels, jam from Berkeley’s Inna Jam, and pickles from the Preservation Society of San Francisco.
“We know people aren’t always shopping for clothes and we want our little space to cater to them as well,” said Nagayama. “Looking for a hostess gift and don’t feel like buying wine? We’ve got you covered. We aim to draw people in with these items, and when they’re ready to buy a sweater or jacket they might revisit us.”
Nagayama said all three legs of the business are profitable. She said this past holiday season was “great, up considerably from 2010.… People were buying more gifts, and in those purchases they wanted to spend locally.”
Like other Church Street merchants, Nagayama said business in Upper Noe is “good on the weekends…but this could be a hard spot for someone who was wholly dependent on foot traffic.”
Incanto Takes Stock
Besides their location, what these businesses share is that they were all launched after the mortgage market collapsed in 2008. For older businesses, the last four or five years have been a struggle.
Take Incanto, which has elevated organ meats to new heights since it opened 11 years ago at 1550 Church St.
“Two thousand eleven was our first healthy year since 2007,” said owner Mark Pastore. “Two thousand seven was the high point; revenues declined in both 2008 and 2009. In 2010, we saw business improve over 2009 levels [but] it was a modest improvement. During those three years we mostly just held on. Our goal was to keep everyone working and come out intact on the other side of the recession.”
Pastore said that even as patronage declined, labor and food costs rose substantially. Particularly challenging was a 20 percent increase in health insurance premiums between 2007 and 2011.
This year so far “is looking to be a good improvement on 2011,” he continued. “People are definitely dining out more frequently, and we’re starting to see people splurge again.”
Pastore said he wasn’t sure how much of the uptick was due to “the younger tech crowd dining out. We always see a good mix of Noe Valleyans as well as younger new faces.”
He speculated that rising stock prices were making people feel more confident. “That translates to willingness to spend more for both our younger clientele and those watching their future retirement funds.”
Other survivors in the restaurant category include Lovejoy’s Tea Room; the perennially popular Chloe’s Cafe; Eric’s, a fixture at the corner of 27th and Church since 1991; and La Ciccia, the celebrated Sardinian eatery on 30th Street. Going strong as well are coffee shops Martha & Bros. and Café XO, and Church Produce at 30th and Church streets.
Drewes Sausage Goes to Market
Meanwhile, the recession and changing demographics have left Upper Noe’s oldest business, Drewes Bros. Meats at 1706 Church, “hanging by a thread,” according to owner Josh Epple.
“Most of our older customers have died or moved away,” he said. “The younger generation has different buying habits, and many of the new residents work for high-tech companies where all of their meals are provided.”
He also lamented the tight parking in Upper Noe, made worse by the displacement of 21 spaces when the streetcar boarding ramps were built in 1997.
Epple is counting on a new booth at the Noe Valley Farmers Market, where he’ll sell house-made sausage and other items, to attract enough new customers to keep the 123-year-old butcher shop in business.
Ready for Rebound
“Volatile” is how Courtney Jones describes business since Kohler Jones, her furniture and interior design store at Church and Day streets, opened in 2007.
At first carrying only sofas and chairs, Kohler Jones has since added beds and bedding, dining tables and chairs, wall and window treatments, carpets, lighting, and accessories.
Jones, who grew up in Diamond Heights, said that while most of her customers live in Noe Valley and nearby Glen Park and Bernal Heights, a growing number “are coming up from the Peninsula.”
Because many are either forming a household or upgrading from “student basic,” she has design consultants who can “help them pull a whole room—or house—together.’’
Noe Valley resident Paula Pagano received tips from Kohler Jones design consultant Wilson Campos as she searched for the “perfect lamp” on a recent weekday. “I love this store,” said Pagano.
With its convenient public transportation, amenities such as the Upper Noe Recreation Center and Park, and a sleek new housing development on the corner of 28th and Church, it looks as if outer Church Street is just waiting to be discovered.
As Mark Pastore puts it, “I think our main issue is just awareness that our little corner of San Francisco even exists. I’ll never forget the evening a guest from Pacific Heights walked into Incanto after her long journey across town and asked me if this was still San Francisco, or if she was in Daly City.”