Nancy Scott, a Millbrae resident, used to frequent San Francisco’s Mission District until it rapidly gentrified.
Then in 2017, she started going to Kava Bar in downtown San Bruno, where patrons can bliss out on Fiji’s national drink while taking in the tropical images on the ceilings. While becoming a regular, she came to love San Mateo Avenue, an incredibly diverse street known for its mom-and-pop stores, the array of spices offered at Neelam Pacific Market and Fiji Market, family-oriented businesses, and an overall “different feel.”
Between Huntington Avenue and El Camino Real, San Bruno’s vibrant downtown shopping corridor offers a mix of jewelry shops, beauty salons, culturally-diverse restaurants, meat markets, a Hula dance school, martial arts centers, delis, union halls, the Paradise Hookah Lounge, and a 105-year-old casino that goes by the name of Artichoke Joe’s.
It’s one of the Bay Area’s shining examples of a middle-class, Main Street downtown with a negligible presence of corporate chains.
“I really love this street,” Scott said. “It’s one of the few streets that hasn’t really changed.”
But the potential for change is still there. The Examiner counted roughly a dozen vacancies during a recent visit, as existing businesses recover from closures and try to increase sales back up to pre-pandemic levels.
To help things along, the San Bruno City Council approved $300,000 earlier this year to make beautification improvements like tree lights, more trash bins, and park projects as part of a streetscape plan.
In the long-term, the city hopes to develop an empty lot at the northern end of the corridor into a mixed use project, perhaps like Aperture Apartments, a luxury apartment complex at 400 San Mateo Ave. built in 2019, said Councilmember Michael Salazar. However, the development could risk changing the fabric of a city already undergoing an evolution driven by market forces and a shifting population — similar to what’s happening in other parts of the Bay Area.
No group has lined up yet to develop such a project, but a mixed-use building is desired, Salazar said.
“Unfortunately, sometimes the small businesses don’t fit into the bigger plan,” Salazar said. “Usually new developments command higher rents and it’s harder to make ends meet for the smaller businesses. We want to do what we can to preserve those businesses as long as they’re viable.”
Josh Traxler and his wife opened the Twice as Nice store six years ago to serve San Bruno’s working-class residents. (It’s an offshoot of his father’s 40-year-old discount retail store in Half Moon Bay.) He scoped locations in South San Francisco and Redwood City but said “none of them had that feel” or ease of opening a business that San Mateo Avenue offered.
It’s the type of street where there’s always a familiar face saying hello, helping him achieve a first-name basis with roughly half his customers. He’s not opposed to development, overall. But Traxler is wary of what happens if it’s done wrong. Parking is a commonly cited issue for the downtown area and changes should take that into account, he said.
“Sometimes developers need to step back, look at everything,” Traxler said. “Sometimes I feel like big, big developers or the City Council only looks at money.”
Raj Singh, owner of the NAPA Auto Parts on San Mateo Avenue since 2005, welcomes redevelopment and thinks it’s needed to keep up with the times. So far, he’s only seen some planters installed.
“They keep saying they’re going to remodel downtown. We haven’t seen anything yet,” said Singh, who is from Fiji. “I hope they don’t put the same plants in again.”
Business owners like Traxler and Singh expressed concern over the number of retail vacancies in San Bruno. Still, independent new businesses, such as the plant nursery Las Selvas, continue to set up shop on San Mateo Avenue, where the middle-class dream is still alive.
Jorge Villatoro and Rocio Fernandez, both from Mexico, found themselves out of work from their server jobs of 13 years at the Cheesecake Factory in downtown San Francisco when the coronavirus shutdowns took place. Instead of spending their savings waiting around for their jobs to come back, they decided to invest in a business. In October, the couple took over the long-standing florist business, San Bruno Flower Fashions, from the retired owner.
“It’s a little slow and steady, but it’s good,” Villatoro said. “This is it. We have to make it work. I think eventually it’s going to pick up.”
Some business has come from people celebrating at Artichoke Joe’s, but much has come from funerals. The couple, both from Mexico, are waiting for restaurants to return and hope for additional fairs or street closures to bring more foot traffic.
San Bruno Mayor Rico Medina has seen the downtown evolve over his lifetime in a city that didn’t yet have retail centers like Tanforan Mall when he was growing up. He remembers a pawn shop where the frozen treat shop Sweet Connections currently is and two different Ross stores, one for women and one for men, on San Mateo Avenue.
Whatever the future holds, he hopes San Bruno can continue welcoming the mom-and-pop businesses that built the downtown character and collaborate with them.
“This is a unique gem of our city,” Medina said. “There are folks that really make it what it is. It’s not easily found.”