In 2014, the Board of Supervisors passed legislation to make it harder for large chains — called formula retail — to open stores in San Francisco neighborhoods already served by local businesses. Chains with 11 stores or more must go through a public process, including a hearing before the Planning Commission, to obtain a conditional use permit before they can open a new store in The City.
But as merchants in Noe Valley are learning, the legislation may not protect small, local businesses if the chain is willing to spread a lot of money around to get that permit.
There are currently 10 small, independent pet stores and 10 dog-grooming services within 1.5 miles of Noe Valley. That so many can survive is a testament to how dog-friendly — and local business-friendly — the neighborhood is.
“We’ve been building our customer bases and supporting our neighbors for many years,” said Ellen French, owner of The Animal Company, a family-run, full-service pet store that has been in Noe Valley for 43 years.
A chain called “Healthy Spot,” with 13 stores in upscale neighborhoods throughout Southern California, wants to open a store in the old Radio Shack space on 24th Street, half a block from The Animal Company. Healthy Spot says it focuses on natural, organic and eco-friendly food, toys and other products, along with specialty grooming services. But the company has a reputation of moving into areas with existing small pet stores and flooding the market with discount coupons.
The small stores, unable to compete with the buying power of the larger chain, are forced to close. Then, with the competition gone, the discounts end. Residents are left with one very expensive pet store and few, if any, alternatives in the neighborhood.
This business model is exactly why the supervisors created restrictions on formula retail: to protect small businesses before a chain moves in and destroys them. The legislation was also intended to preserve the unique character of San Francisco’s neighborhood retail areas against the homogenizing effect of chains.
As a result, San Francisco has significantly less formula retail than the national average.
However, The City does allow a conditional use permit if the chain can prove that there’s a need for their products and services and that people want the formula retail. That’s why you see a Starbucks on nearly every commercial street: People want their daily coffee fix easy to get.
But that’s not the case here.
“Healthy Spot is a clear-cut example of the kind of formula retail company San Franciscans voted to restrict,” said community organizer Roisin Isner, who successfully fought several chains trying to move into the Mission.
The Noe Valley pet businesses have banded together in a coalition called My Local Pet Shop. The group has a petition to “Keep Noe Valley Businesses Local.” So far, more than 1,300 people have signed.
Healthy Spot has hired Lighthouse Public Affairs, a local public relations and lobbying firm, to help them navigate the permit process. Lighthouse has given money to the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations. Indeed, they’re listed as a Silver Sponsor on the SFCDMA website.
Healthy Spot, a company with no stores in San Francisco, is listed as a Bronze Sponsor for SFCDMA. It sure looks like they’re trying to buy their way into a conditional use permit.
The Noe Valley Merchants Association, a SFCDMA member, has so far not taken a position on the application.
The small, independent stores can’t compete with the chain when it comes to donating money. But they do have the support of their customers and neighbors who have shopped in their stores for decades.
The “My Local Pet Shop” coalition is currently preparing for a June 21 hearing before the Planning Commission to consider Healthy Spot’s conditional use application.
“We are trying to preserve the character of our neighborhood and keep businesses local,” said Sage Cotton, owner of VIP Scrub Club, a dog-grooming salon.
If you agree, sign their petition and write the Planning Commission opposing a conditional use permit for Healthy Spot. And be sure to patronize the My Local Pet Shop stores in Noe Valley that are fighting so hard to survive.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.