Therapy dogs from San Francisco SPCA visit Gus's Community Market in San Francisco's Mission District Friday, September 22, 2017 to console employees and customers following the death of the market's owner, Gus Vardakastanis. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Friends, employees mourn loss of beloved SF grocer killed in hit-and-run

Gus’s Community Market employee Soryya Sophorn’s gaze fell onto the crate of strawberries he had been sorting through as he recounted an interaction he regularly had with his boss of three years.

“I would say, ‘Top of the morning,’ and he would say, ‘Bottom of the night,’” Sophorn said, smiling through tears, on Friday morning. Hours earlier, at 2:17 a.m., his boss Konstantinos “Gus” Vardakastanis, owner of the popular San Francisco market, was killed in a hit-and-run crash in the Bayview District. He was 56.

“He was a jokester,” Sophorn recalled. “People who didn’t know him might have been like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

From the Haight to the Sunset and Mission neighborhoods, where Vardakastanis and his family had opened three markets over the past three decades, San Franciscans on Friday were mourning the loss of the well-known grocer who, apart from building a family empire on fresh produce, is remembered for his rock solid work ethic and unique humor.

“Gus, to me, was one of those guys who probably didn’t like everybody. But if he liked you, you knew it,” said Joey Hafner, who met Vardakastanis in 1996 while working on Haight Street, across the street from where Vardakastanis ran one of his first markets. “He tried his best to come off as ‘tough guy.’ But I always saw him as a big-hearted softy.”

Vardakastanis founded Haight-Ashbury Produce in 1981 and later opened Noriega Produce in 1985 and Gus’s Community Market in 2015. He died early Friday after he was struck by a vehicle at Jerrold Avenue and Toland Street that later fled the scene. A manager at Gus’s Community Market in the Mission District said that Vardakastanis was shopping for produce at a Bayview wholesale market when he was killed.

Police are investigating the crash that claimed Vardakastanis’ life as he was crossing the roadway near the intersection, but as of Friday morning, no arrests had been made.

The driver of the vehicle, a silver sedan that has windshield and front end damage, was allegedly speeding.

Minutes before the collision, at 2:12 a.m., police responded to a report of shots fired about eight blocks from the scene of the crash, at Newhall Street and McKinnon Avenue, but police said it is unclear whether the shooting and crash were related.

“There was a shotspotter activation and units responded to the area at McKinnon and Newhall where they located bullet casings,” said Officer Giselle Linnane, a spokesperson with the San Francisco Police Department. Linnane said an investigation into the fired shots is ongoing.

Therapy dogs from San Francisco SPCA visit Gus’s Community Market in San Francisco’s Mission District Friday, September 22, 2017 to console employees and customers following the death of the market’s owner, Gus Vardakastanis. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who represents the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where Vardakastanis’ market has become a community staple, said in a statement that she is “truly saddened” by Vardakastanis’ death.

“This incident is under investigation by the San Francisco Police Department and I’m sure more info surrounding his death will surface,” Breed said in the statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and the employees of the markets he owned throughout The City. He kept his prices affordable and was very committed to hiring locally including those who needed a second chance. Gus was loved and he will be truly missed.”

Those who crossed paths with Vardakastanis, a Greek immigrant from the island of Zakynthos, said he was clearly a family man, and worked diligently to build a business that he first ran alongside his wife, Georgia, and later with his two sons, Bobby and Dimitri.

“He was crazy about his wife Georgia and his boys. Man, he loved his family. He worked harder than any man I know,” Hafner said. “ The Haight has lost one of its best today.”

Though Vardakastanis’ sons largely managed Gus’s Community Market at 2111 Harrison St., employees there remembered him as being “still very hands on.”

“When I started working for them, he was here at 5 in the morning, five to six days a week — even now he was still very much in the mix,” said Andrew Lehr, a manager at Gus’s Community Market who has been employed by Vardakastanis for five years. “That’s where he was tonight. At the produce terminal.”

Vardakastanis would frequent the Bayview’s Wholesale Produce Market to pick out fresh fruit and vegetables for his locations.

“He buys his stuff there early in the morning, then has it delivered here, and then we take care of if for him,” Sophorn said. “That was his pet peeve, produce.”

According to his employees, Vardakastanis took pride in his market’s assortment of fresh, organic produce, which he often arranged himself with care.

On Friday morning, news of Vardakastanis’ death trickled throughout Gus’s Community Market. A cashier on the verge of tears could be seen ringing up customers, his chin sunken into his chest. Others were still unaware of the tragedy that had unfolded shortly before the market opened its doors for the day.

“We didn’t have a meeting yet — we are letting the family have their peace and we are just letting everyone [here] do their thing,” Sophorn said. “The show must go on, that’s how Gus would have wanted it.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the San Francisco Police Department Tip Line at (415) 575-4444 or Text a Tip to TIP411 and begin the message with “SFPD.” Tipsters may remain anonymous.

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Gus's Community Market is seen at 2111 Harrison St. on Friday, September 22, 2017. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

Gus's Community Market is seen at 2111 Harrison St. (Courtesy Gus's Market via Facebook)

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