Noe Valley Voice September 2004

Work Begins at Real Food Site

By Liz Highleyman

Nearly a year after the 24th Street Real Food Company closed its doors last Labor Day weekend amid charges of union-busting, signs of construction have finally appeared at the long-vacant storefront. In late August, work crews could be seen going in and out of the gutted grocery, which for more than three decades had been Noe Valley's largest and most popular purveyor of organic foods.

According to Jane Allen, who with her husband, Kimball, owns the building, and Sergio Diaz--marketing director for Real Food's Utah-based parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation--the two parties reached an agreement this summer about who would foot the bill for structural repairs to the property.

Building Repairs Started

"The process is moving along," Jane Allen told the Voice on Aug. 23. "We're working on the structural problems."

Allen said her contractor told her that the work should be completed by the end of September, but she added that the city's permitting process and other unforeseen delays could lengthen that timeline. Rumors that the building would be demolished and rebuilt were unfounded, Allen said.

"The owners will bring the building up to code, and we'll take it from there with any renovations and improvements," Diaz told the Voice.

Diaz added that after the code-related structural work is completed, he expects the improvements should take about a month. "Our part is not a major reconstruction, it's a makeover type of job," he said. "Our hope is to have this finished by the end of the year."

As of Aug. 24, the city's Department of Building Inspection had on file a permit for "interior soft demolition" at 3939 24th Street (a renewal of a permit taken out in September 2003), but no permits for major structural work.

Reactions Run the Gamut

Some local residents and business owners are happy to see an end to the long stalemate. "It's hard on the block when that large of a storefront is closed," said Carol Yenne, president of the Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association. "It's hurting businesses to have that much square footage empty."

But a group of neighborhood organizers remains angry about how Nutraceutical handled last year's closure, as well as the company's refusal to discuss community grievances.

"We've made such a good-faith effort to engage in real dialogue with Nutraceutical, and have been ignored or met with nothing but 'corporate-speak,'" said 24th Street resident Leslie Crawford. "We just want them to leave the neighborhood. They've done enough damage already."

Last fall and winter, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty repeatedly offered to help mediate between Nutraceutical and the community, but his overtures were rebuffed. Dufty's legislative aide, Rebecca Prozan, said the supervisor has continued to call Nutraceutical CEO Bill Gay several times a week, with no response.

Saturday Protest Planned

The organizing group will hold a protest on Saturday, Sept. 4, to call attention to the ongoing issues surrounding the Real Food closure. It will begin at 11:45 a.m. at the weekly Noe Valley Farmers' Market. From there, protesters will march to the Real Food storefront, where they will distribute literature and listen to speakers.

"The protest is intended to remind Nutraceutical that they are not welcome in Noe Valley," said 13-year resident Steve Powell. "They have treated everyone, including their employees, shabbily over the past year."

The protest organizers said they would ask shoppers to boycott the 24th Street store if Nutraceutical succeeded in reopening. "The issue is not going to go away," Powell said. "If they choose to come back, they'll face a very stiff boycott. They are out of state, out of touch, and should be out of Noe Valley."

The group would like to see Real Food replaced by a locally owned natural grocery store. The owners of Bi-Rite Market on 18th Street have expressed interest in opening a Noe Valley branch, said Powell.

While Nutraceutical is the primary focus of the organizers' ire, they are not letting Jane and Kimball Allen off the hook. "They bear some responsibility for the dramatic impact this has had on the neighborhood," said Crawford.

Added Powell, "We want to pressure the Allens to take a second look at Nutraceutical as a desirable lessee, in light of the fact that locally owned grocers would like to do business in Noe Valley." Nutraceutical holds an option to lease the property for 12 years.

NLRB Decision Expected Soon

Meanwhile, all parties are anxiously awaiting the resolution of five unfair labor practices lawsuits against Nutraceutical now pending before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). While the company maintains that the store was closed for renovations, fired employees contend it was shuttered in order to stymie union-organizing efforts.

The board examiner for the cases, Lee Polony, was on vacation and unreachable, but NLRB supervising attorney Olivia Garcia told the Voice on Aug. 18 that the investigation is still ongoing. "We're very close to coming to a decision," she said, predicting it would come "within the next month."

In April, at Dufty's request, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to the NLRB asking the agency to render a decision within 60 days. Dufty had expected to hear something by mid-August, but a new complaint against Nutraceutical, filed in June, appears to have delayed the process.

Dufty fears that the competing need for an anchor tenant on 24th Street and the desire to see justice for the workers could "pit merchants against neighbors."

Dufty told the Voice earlier this year that he hoped an NLRB decision favorable to the ex-employees could "help the neighborhood avoid a fight" over the store's reopening.

Ex-Employee Told No Jobs Available

Kim Rohrbach--a fired Real Food employee who was sympathetic to, but not involved in, the unionization effort--said that "at the very least, Nutraceutical should adopt a position of union neutrality and agree not to interfere with future organizing efforts."

She and others also want the company to offer jobs to the terminated workers on a preferential basis, and to pay back wages to those fired unjustly.

Nutraceutical has said all along that employees terminated from the 24th Street store were welcome to apply at the company's other locations. Rohrbach applied in November 2003 and again in May 2004, but was told nothing was available, despite the fact that job openings were posted on Craig's List. Rohrbach said that as far as she knew, only three of the fired employees--none of whom were involved in the union campaign--had been hired at the company's other local stores.

On a related note, the Noe Valley Farmers' Market--which grew out of the need for a local source of organic produce in the wake of Real Food's closure--"is in the final stages of getting the permits" to operate permanently at its current location in the Noe Valley Ministry parking lot on 24th Street, according to Paula Benton of the Friends of the Noe Valley Farmers' Market. As required by law, a 30-day notice was posted giving anyone the chance to request a discretionary review, but no one did so.