Noe Valley Voice December-January 2005

Surprising Developments in Real Food Saga

By Liz Highleyman

More than two years after the Real Food Company on 24th Street abruptly closed its doors--and following months of legal wrangling--changes are finally afoot in the heart of the Noe Valley commercial district.

As Voice readers will recall, Real Food's Utah-based parent company, Nutraceutical Corporation (which also does business as Fresh Organics, Inc.), terminated 30 employees and shuttered the organic grocery store on Aug. 28, 2003, ostensibly for the purpose of a long-overdue remodeling. The fired workers accused the company of closing in order to halt their unionizing efforts and filed a lawsuit with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

While the NLRB took its time reaching a decision this summer, Nutraceutical and building owners Jane and Kimball Allen, who are Marin County residents, fought a separate legal battle over who should pay for extensive repairs to the storefront at 3939 24th Street.

Building Changes Hands

In early November, the Allens sold the building that houses Real Food to Nutraceutical. Although a jury trial had been scheduled for next spring, the legal action was dismissed in its entirety on Nov. 15.

Jane Allen confirmed the sale, but was reluctant to provide details about the legal settlement.

"I don't know what else to say," she told the Voice.

Nutraceutical was equally reticent about the deal. Lawyers following the case speculated that Nutraceutical had the upper hand in the dispute over the building repairs, so it was in the Allens' best interests to sell.

Local activist Peter Gabel, who has spearheaded efforts to hold Nutraceutical accountable for what he sees as the unethical treatment of its workers and the community, called the sale of the building "a bizarre turn of events."

"The sale is shocking in its insensitivity to the worker injustice and community harm that has taken place in our neighborhood," said Gabel. "An absentee landlord and an out-of-state corporation acted together in a way that has been harmful to the community."

Renovations Under Way

The sale removes a long-standing roadblock to the completion of promised renovations to the 24th Street store.

"Since the closure for remodel, our intent has been to reopen a neighborhood natural food market with the support of the local community and city of San Francisco," Fresh Organics Vice President Les Brown wrote in an e-mail message to the Voice. "Now that we own the building, we will focus on remedying seismic and structural issues first."

"Renovations are under way right now, and [the company is] looking forward to reopening and being able to provide the quality organic produce that they know the neighborhood wants and deserves," added Stephen Hirschfeld, a Noe Valley attorney representing Nutraceutical.

Given the vagaries of the permit process, Brown said he was unable to estimate a completion date. According to the Department of Building Inspection's web site, no new permit applications for the property have been filed since the sale.

Mixed Opinions on Reopening

In the opinion of some local merchants and residents, Real Food can't reopen fast enough.

"There has been a big hole in that block for three holidays seasons now," Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association President Carol Yenne told the Voice. "People who used to come to that market and also shopped at other stores in the neighborhood are now going elsewhere. For the sake of the business community, I hope this resolution means we'll soon see something opening in that space."

But others aren't so eager to forgive and forget.

"Nutraceutical's bad behavior is not acceptable," said local resident John Friedman. "It's not even close to forgivable, no matter what amends might be offered."

Friedman plans to boycott, should Nutraceutical reopen the 24th Street store (see Letters, this page).

Meanwhile, District 8 Supervisor Bevan Dufty is pressing Nutraceutical to start talking to the community.

"I have communicated to the company that it's not in their interest to continue this freeze," Dufty said. "Now that the building is in their hands, there isn't an excuse any longer for uncertainty about their plans. I just hope sooner rather than later they will try to reach out and repair their relationship with the neighborhood."

NLRB Sides With Fired Workers

On Nov. 23, the NLRB issued its long-awaited decision in the labor case, finding for the Real Food employees on nearly all counts. The ruling was released Wednesday afternoon before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and neither the Voice nor the parties to the dispute had had an opportunity to examine the written decision in detail by press time.

"We won across the board," said ex-employee and plaintiff Kim Rohrbach. "It's certainly a welcome surprise."

Based on her conversation with NLRB attorney Kathleen Schneider, Rohrbach said Administrative Law Judge James Kennedy determined that Nutraceutical's firing of two union organizers, Mitch Genlot-Josyln and Adriel Ahern, and its refusal to rehire Rohrbach at another location was due to the employees' unionizing efforts.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 26), Judge Kennedy wrote, in part, that there were "a number of facts which appear, on their face at least, to suggest that [the store's] closure was motivated by antiunion factors rather than due to a neutral business decision."

Kennedy ordered that the terminated employees must be awarded back pay, offered existing jobs within the company, and given priority for new jobs if and when the 24th Street store reopens.

Nutraceutical officials strongly disagreed with Kennedy's ruling.

"We're absolutely convinced the judge made the wrong decision," Hirschfeld said. "We're looking into our options and considering an appeal."

But activists like Gabel were pleased with the news. "A company like this can't just roll into town, break the labor laws, disrespect the community, and use its wealth to ignore our protest," he said. "[The NLRB decision] adds clout to our claim that Nutraceutical should not reopen without making real amends for violating our community's standards of social justice and basic human decency."

Gabel and other local residents hope to meet with Dufty, the ex-employees, and Noe Valley merchants to develop a unified position with regard to Nutraceutical.

"We want to do what's best for 24th Street, supporting both the values of the community and the community's economy," Gabel said. "That's the challenge before us now."