San Francisco is in the midst of celebrating its annual Small Business Week, which is probably a good thing to do when 95 percent of all the companies in this fair city are small businesses.
Yet at the kickoff event at City Hall, only the mayor and two supervisors — Ed Jew and Sean Elsbernd — were in attendance (Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin got credited with a drive-by), prompting the response from some quarters that perhaps our leaders are sending the wrong message to our local proprietors.
That’s what triggered me to ask a number of small business owners whether there really is something worth celebrating, to which the reply was: kind of; maybe; well, now that I think about it …
“Running a small business in San Francisco is increasingly the act of a deranged individual,” said Daniel Scherotter, who owns Italian restaurant Palio d’Asti in the Financial District. “It just gets more and more difficult.”
Here in the land of a thousandfees, a place where ideology washes over the bottom line, setting up shop is no small (business) task. Whether it’s hiking the minimum wage, mandated sick leave, requiring payment for universal health care (even if the company already provides it), or regular attempts at tax hikes, San Francisco’s
special brand of politics blurs the distinctions between businesses large and small, good and evil.
Voters here can condemn big-box retailers at the same time they pass legislation that harms small businesses to the point of threatening their financial survival. But the entrepreneurs endure, because no matter the number of 16-hour days, they love their businesses and will make the sacrifice as long as they can.
“Small business needs to do its fair share for The City and that’s really true,” said Mark Klaiman, co-owner of Pet Camp, an overnight and day care facility for cats and dogs now in its 10th year. “But The City also has an obligation to us. People need to be nurtured and feel wanted. I see it as much more of a relationship issue, and I would say the relationship is strained right now.”
And you can understand that, especially when one of your local politicos refers to the Small Business Commission as the “small mind commission” (Supervisor Tom Ammiano), and then he and his colleagues puts a mandated health care measure on the ballot with little public input and no economic analysis outlining the potential cost to employers.
It’s not supposed to happen that way, but that’s the business model put forth in San Francisco — at least by local lawmakers.
“The general perception is that the board is unaware of the realities of running a business,” said Jordanna Thigpen, vice president of the Small Business Commission.
So besides the difficulty of dealing with exorbitant rents, taxes, insurance and the other joys associated with operating a company, there is also the looming presence of the one thing that can’t be legislated — competition — which has been known to kill a business or two.
In the last few years, nearly 20 shops have opened and closed near her high-end, women’s clothing boutique store on Fillmore Street, says the owner of Oceana Rain, whose real name is actually Oceana Rain.
“So many businesses come and go, and when you get a huge retailer like Bloomingdale’s moving in, you really take a hit,” Rain said. “These big corporations actually send scouts out to boutiques to see what lines they’re carrying, so when I’m looking for new designers, the first question I ask them is whether they sell to department stores.”
Rain’s shop has been open for eight years now, but she says it never gets easier. She says even the smallest details are important to finding and keeping customers, which is why she’s branched out to work with charities and held fund-raisers in the form of discount shopping parties.
“We’ll feed parking meters, provide bottled water — anything to bring customers good memories down the road,” she said. “But the competition is so fierce that you almost have to be like an Olympic athlete to survive these days.”
And in the village of San Francisco, there are other unexpected hurdles, like homelessness, which can have a real impact on businesses. Paul Ayanian has run Le Regency Deli on California Street for 30 years and he said his recessed entranceway has become like a second home for those who have a dislike for shelters.
“Our location gets used and abused so we’ve had to work hard to build relationships with city agencies to get their help,” he said. “So if The City didn’t work with us, we wouldn’t be able to make it.” His survival secret? “I work with my family,” he said. “My dad’s on the register right now.”
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.