Free El Farolito! San Francisco’s North Beach burrito ban must not stand

San Francisco reaches new level of absurdity with ban on famed burrito spot

By The San Francisco Examiner Editorial Board

In a city known for its liberal attitude toward drugs, sex and nearly everything else, San Francisco bureaucrats have finally found an addictive menace worth banning: El Farolito burritos.

On Thursday, the San Francisco Department of Planning announced that El Farolito, the beloved Mission District institution known as home of The City’s best burritos, cannot open a new location in North Beach. It appears that the taqueria’s plan for a new location at 1230 Grant Ave. has run afoul of local laws restricting large “formula retail” chain stores like McDonald’s and Starbucks.

“Given the code’s prohibition of formula retail uses in North Beach, this new El Farolito would not be allowed,” Planning Department Chief of Staff Dan Sider wrote in an email to The San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported the news of the decision.

City bureaucrats left open the possibility that some version of the taqueria’s famous burritos could get approved for consumption in North Beach someday.

“There could, however, be a path forward to open a slightly different El Farolito,” reports The Chronicle. “If the owners made ‘sufficient changes’ to the proposed taqueria or one of the other locations, such as changing the menu or the signage, it would no longer be considered a chain, Zoning Administrator Corey Teague told co-owner Irene Lopez in an email on Tuesday.”

Some of the taqueria’s 12 or so Bay Area locations go by different names. Still, city officials’ interpretation of rules meant to keep out corporate chains means the taqueria’s North Beach outpost is on hold for now.

Even before the Planning Department’s decision became official, some local residents had expressed outrage over the bureaucratic snafu.

“Something is broken if we treat a small, family owned Mexican restaurant the same way as a Starbucks or a McDonalds,” wrote Danny Sauter, former president of North Beach Neighbors, in an online petition that quickly collected over 800 signatures. “While neighbors continue to support keeping true mega chains out, this instance clearly shows the current system is broken.”

In late August, Mission Local conducted a deep dive into El Farolito’s complicated quest to open the new shop.

“To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a burrito is a burrito is a burrito. Or is it?” wrote Joe Eskenazi. “More specifically: Is El Farolito the same as El Favorito?”

“El Farolito may be a beloved local institution and the answer to many a late-night prayer, but it also may be ‘formula retail,’” Eskenazi wrote. “ And the city Planning Department’s forthcoming ruling on that matter will be pivotal.”

San Francisco has multiple laws restricting the expansion of “formula retail” in The City, including laws passed or expanded in 2003, 2007 and 2014. The upshot is that any business with 11 or more locations may qualify as “formula retail.”

El Farolito technically has around 12 locations, according to Mission Local, but some of those restaurants are called El Favorito or Mi Farolito. And at least one of them has a different logo, raising a question as to exactly how many El Farolitos truly exist.

“There is, clearly, room for interpretation here,” wrote Eskenazi. “That decision will, eventually, be made by Zoning Administrator Corey Teague. If his determination is not to El Farolito’s liking, the next step is to take the matter to the Board of Appeal.”

Salvador Lopez, a Mexican immigrant from Guanajuato, opened El Farolito at 24th and Mission in the early 1980s, according to an obituary published by Mission Local after he died in January at age 70. He built the humble taqueria into a small family empire with locations in Concord, Oakland and Santa Rosa, and he even owned a soccer team aptly named El Farolito Soccer Club.

Allowing rules targeted at gaudy chain stores to keep a beloved local institution out of North Beach seems absurd. At a time when many restaurants and bars are struggling after a year of COVID shutdowns, it’s a miracle that this cherished homegrown taqueria seeks to expand. This burrito ban will surely add to San Francisco city government’s reputation as a global laughingstock with bizarre priorities (see: designer garbage cans).

Hopefully, El Farolito’s owners won’t give up. The Planning Department’s decision may reflect the letter of the law, but it clearly does not reflect the spirit of San Francisco. During this Hispanic Heritage Month, city leaders should skip the flimsy proclamations and instead find a way to forge a compromise with a Mexican restaurant that has added so much flavor to The City over the years.

With some creative thinking — perhaps by rebranding the new location as “Not El Farolito” or labeling its burritos as “Mission-Style Tortilla Tubes” — they may be able to persuade the Planning Dept. to lift this Kafkaesque embargo on the legendary taqueria. And maybe this is the wake up call City Hall needed to fix these rules so they don’t hurt small businesses.

“Let’s change the law,” tweeted District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney on Thursday. “El Farolito and Starbucks shouldn’t be treated the same.”

¡Viva El Farolito!

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