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No Signs of Remodeling at Real Food Co.
By Liz Highleyman
Five months after the abrupt closure of the 24th Street Fresh Organics/Real Food Company late last August, Noe Valleyans are wondering why they haven't seen any construction crews in the vicinity--and asking just how long they'll have to wait for the return of a steady local source of fresh organic produce.
Although various sources speculated last fall that the store might be closed for four to six months, Fresh Organics Marketing Director Sergio Diaz declined to give a firm estimate. "The building is very old and full of surprises," he told the Voice in September.
Reached again in late January, Diaz said the company had discovered some unexpected structural issues with the building, located at 3939 24th Street. Although he declined to explain in detail, pending negotiations with the landlord, he did say there were concerns with the safety of the building.
"We sincerely understand the inconvenience we are creating for the community," Diaz emphasized. "We want to get the store up and running as fast as we can, even if I have to get a hammer and do the work myself."
According to the city's Department of Building Inspection, Fresh Organics' work permit, which covers only outdoor awnings, has been extended until March 21, 2004.
Meanwhile, negotiations appear to have stalled between Nutraceutical Corporation--Fresh Organics' Utah-based parent company--and the nearly 30 workers terminated without notice when the store closed. The ex-employees allege that Real Food was closed because they were attempting to organize a union.
Company representatives counter that they were not aware of any formal union campaign, and say the store was closed to permit long-delayed renovations. At least four unfair labor practices lawsuits filed by terminated employees against Nutraceutical are currently pending before the National Labor Relations Board, which has yet to issue a preliminary ruling in the case.
Last fall, local activists sent a letter with some 2,000 signatures to Nutraceutical decrying the sudden store closure and termination of the workers as "a violation of the fundamental human values of our progressive city and neighborhood," and asking the company to begin a good faith dialogue with the community and the ex-employees.
District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty agreed to serve as a mediator and met separately with representatives from both sides last December. "I told [company representatives] that the workers' and community's issues needed to be addressed in a meaningful manner or I questioned whether the store could ever reopen," Dufty said. "People don't want to hear 'We made a mistake.'"
Community activists and ex-employees are demanding, at a minimum, that Nutraceutical reinstate the terminated workers' and recognize their union.
The company failed to provide a clear "yes or no" answer to the offer of mediation by a Jan. 15 deadline imposed by Dufty and the ex-employees. Nevertheless, Dufty said he continued to hope for further progress. He told the Voice he would send a letter to Nutraceutical CEO Bill Gay, offering to fly to Park City at his own expense for a face-to-face meeting. "They need to make a corporate decision whether they want to be part of the Noe Valley community," Dufty said.
Ex-employee Kim Rohrbach said she and other terminated workers would continue to explore their options. "We take [the company's] non-response to the proposed mediation as a refusal," she said. "There are different things we can do to escalate pressure, and we are sticking with our two demands."
Neighborhood activist Peter Gabel, who helped spearhead the effort to hold Nutraceutical accountable, said he wants to "keep holding out the olive branch."
He also still supports the principle of mediation. "We have a number of options, including increased economic pressure and wider publicity about the injustice that's taken place," Gabel told the Voice. "If Nutraceutical really will not address the issue of justice for the workers and respect for the community, many people would like to find a local owner who will identify with the progressive values that many of us in Noe Valley hold."
At a community meeting on Dec. 11, several participants also expressed support for a worker- or community-owned co-op in the 24th Street space.
To discuss what to do next, another community meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 12, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sanchez Street. "We need to get a strong feeling from the community and the workers on how best to proceed," said Gabel. "Instead of the 'Real Food/Real Justice' our buttons call for, we're facing 'No Food/No Justice' and a disruption in the spirit--and perhaps economy--of 24th Street."
To find out more about the Real Food organizing effort or join the e-mail list, see http://groups.yahoo.com/group/reformrealfoods. m