At a meeting held March 14, 2013, at Moscone Recreation Center, a small group of neighbors gathered to hear about plans for a Sur la Table on Union Street in Cow Hollow. The event was very pleasant; executives from the gourmet housewares chain brought sandwiches and coffee and showed off sketches of the façade, which will follow the formula of their other 100-plus locations. The only dissenter was Fredricksen Hardware, which has served Cow Hollow since 1896. Fredricksen worries that the competition will hurt them, particularly since half their business comes from housewares.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting were members of the Marina Community Association (MCA). When I asked a Sur la Table representative if the MCA knew about the meeting, she said they did; that Sur la Table planned to make a presentation to them soon, but so far they and the other community groups seemed receptive. The same can’t be said, however, about the MCA’s stance on Pet Food Express (PFE) moving into the old Blockbuster building on Lombard Street.
Exactly one month before, a meeting about PFE in the very same room turned downright contentious. MCA president Ariel Kelley, several MCA board members, and the owners of two Chestnut Street pet stores were all in attendance. Shouting matches ensued. Catnip ‘n Bones owner Pam Habel and Animal Connection II owner Peter Weaver ranted about keeping chains out of the neighborhood. The MCA talks a lot about that, too. The problem is the only chain any of them seem to mind is PFE. None of them stood behind Fredricksen at the Sur la Table meeting. And fast-growing Canada-based David’s Tea, which currently has 106 locations, just opened near Catnip ‘n Bones amid dozens of tea-selling eateries and cafes.
Of course, competition is part of doing business, but the Chestnut pet stores don’t want any competition, and they’ll do anything to keep PFE out, including twist the facts and threaten boycotts of businesses that support the project. They also conveniently leave out pertinent information when it hurts their cause. For example, Weaver said he was afraid PFE would shut him down, but in October of 2012 he opened another Animal Connection II right next to a long-established PFE in Burlingame. When I asked him about it, he said the pet store he took over was put out of business by PFE. It sure doesn’t sound like a very smart decision to take over a 2,000-square-foot space next to such a formidable competitor. When I pressed him further, Weaver said he opened there because he believed he could “do as well if not better than PFE.” So why can’t he do the same in San Francisco?
On its website, the MCA says it has “taken a stand against PFE,” yet it doesn’t offer one good reason. When I say “good,” that’s because they do offer reasons, but they’re ridiculous. For example, they’re angry that PFE “has not maintained the building or parking lot.” Last time I checked, that was the building owner’s responsibility. The MCA also writes that it is disingenuous of PFE to “claim Lombard is deteriorating and that opening a PFE will help to bring a positive flow of commercial activity to a street that is in bad condition.” They obviously spend too much time on Chestnut Street — Lombard is deteriorating. An anchor tenant like PFE would definitely bring positive commercial activity to a street where prostitutes’ bodies are dumped in motel parking lots because the highway provides an easy exit out of town.
It is PFE’s fault that “the site has remained vacant and deteriorating for the past four years,” according to the MCA, but four years ago the MCA and MMA (Marina Merchants Association) blocked PFE’s first attempt to move in, so the blame for the building remaining “vacant and deteriorating” rests squarely on their shoulders. The MCA does promise to find a “suitable replacement tenant as soon as possible,” but I’d like to know who is more suitable than PFE, a community-involved, San Francisco-born business that plans to build a cat adoption center for Pets Unlimited at the Lombard site. Not to mention that the MCA has had four years to find that “suitable tenant,” but according to building landlord Doug Sherer, no one has come forward except another large pet store — one based in Marin, with no vested interest in the community.
Competition for the two Chestnut pet stores is the MCA’s final reason, but since one of them just opened next to PFE in Burlingame and neither has any problem with the competition David’s Tea or Sur la Table will bring, I’d say that’s a moot point. Of course, the pet stores’ reasons for opposing PFE are self-serving — if David’s Tea sold catnip blends or Sur la Table had a line of gourmet dog treats, they’d be howling at the moon about them, too.
As for the MCA, Kelley says they received “dozens of comments” and she admits that many members support PFE, but when I asked to see the results of their member survey, she said she would “get back to me.” She never did. Strange, considering she happily gave me the results of their Marina Green restaurant survey a few days earlier. So why does the MCA oppose PFE? There’s definitely more to it than meets the eye, but due to their lack of transparency, we may never know.