Noe Valley Voice May 2004

Real Food Negotiations Stalled

By Liz Highleyman

The Real Food Company storefront on 24th Street remains vacant as Fresh Organics/Nutraceutical Corporation, the Utah-based parent company that operates the store, and property owners Jane and Kimball Allen continue to barter over structural repairs to the building.

Contrary to what was published in last month's Voice "Rumors Behind the News" column, Fresh Organics Marketing Director Sergio Diaz maintains that an agreement with the Allens has not yet been reached (see letter to the editor from Diaz in this issue).

"Unfortunately, we were very close to reaching an agreement with the landlord, but we have had more delay because they want to rethink a couple of things," Diaz told the Voice.

The 24th Street store was abruptly shuttered at the end of August 2003 with no advance notice to customers or employees, about 30 of whom were terminated. The company claims the store was closed for a much-needed renovation. The ex-employees contend Nutraceutical closed the store because the workers were trying to organize a union. Unfair labor practice complaints against the company are currently pending before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Diaz told the Voice in January that after the store was closed, the company discovered substantial structural problems with the building. Nutraceutical and the Allens have been negotiating for months over how the repairs will be handled and who will foot the bill. The company holds an option to lease the property for 12 years, renewable in three-year increments.

As for when neighbors can expect to see the store reopen, "it's pretty much in the hands of the landlord," Diaz said in late April. "That will define when the structural improvements begin, and then we will do our part with the remodeling."

As reported in the March Voice, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty abandoned his efforts to help mediate a mutually agreeable resolution among Nutraceutical, ex-employees, and concerned neighbors after the company failed to accept his offer.

Nearly 100 attendees at a February community meeting voted unanimously to ask the company to give up the 24th Street space. On Feb. 19, organizers sent a letter to Nutraceutical CEO Frank W. Gay asking the company to "leave our neighborhood and allow us to proceed with plans to initiate a grocery store that is locally owned and reflective of the values of our neighborhood." The owners of Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street and Mikeytom Market, formerly located on Church Street, have both expressed interest in operating a 24th Street store.

Last month, community organizers called on supporters to contact Nutraceutical executives, by phone, fax, and e-mail, on April 8 to pressure the company to leave the neighborhood. They also urged people to write to the Allens to express concerns about Nutraceutical.

"We don't regard ourselves as detached consumers standing passively by as events do or do not unfold around us while our community suffers the consequences," read the call to action issued by protest organizers Peter Gabel, Leslie Crawford, and ex­Real Food employee Kim Rohrbach. "Our preference at this point would be to see the company quit its 24th Street lease--we do not want to engage in a protracted struggle with a company that has created so much conflict.... But we'd also like company executives to be aware that, should they insist upon doing business in our community, we will continue to hold them ethically accountable for their actions."

Organizers also asked consumers to boycott Nutraceutical products, including several lines of vitamins sold in health food stores (Solaray, VegLife, NaturalMax, ActiPet, and others).

Diaz had no comment on the call-in campaign. "We listen to everybody and we respect every opinion," he told the Voice. "Certainly, as soon as we are able, we will do a formal response."

Meanwhile, Dufty sent a letter to Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on April 6 asking her help in getting the NLRB to render a judgment in the ex-employees' case, which the agency received months ago.

According to Pelosi staffer Catherine Dodd, a staff member in Washington spoke with NLRB officer Olivia Garcia, who indicated that the agency would be making a decision "soon," but could not speculate as to exactly when, due to a "significant backlog." Pelosi sent a letter to the NLRB urging the agency to render a decision within 60 days.

"I think she'll make a difference in getting this decision," Dufty told the Voice. "I think [the NLRB] will weigh in on the side of the employees, and that will influence Nutraceutical's behavior when and if they reopen."

Dufty fears that the competing need for an anchor tenant for the 24th Street commercial district and the desire to see justice for the fired workers could ultimately "pit merchants against neighbors." While many former Real Food shoppers have vowed never to return, others say convenience and the need for a local source of high-quality groceries will win out.

Although still hopeful that Nutraceutical will "decide to walk away and let us bring in someone else," Dufty does not think a company exit is likely. Failing that, he hopes a quick NLRB decision in favor of the employees will "help the neighborhood avoid a fight" over the store's reopening.