Whole paycheck

Whole paycheck

Plans for upscale supermarket worry Haight Ashbury residents

By Amanda Witherell

On a Sunday afternoon, the Cala Foods at Stanyan and Haight is a dismal sight. Thrifty shoppers, beckoned by the 6070 percent off price tags walk out into the drizzle, empty-handed. The doors close permanently May 24, and there isn’t much left.

The owner of the building, Mark Brennan, plans to demolish the place, and is negotiating with Whole Foods the fast-growing organic food chain to build a new store on the site. Some Haight neighbors are looking forward to the organic option, but many are scowling about the potential for increased traffic in the foot-friendly hood and the fact that Whole Foods is known for high-end products with high-end prices. They refer to the store as “Whole Paycheck.”

According to plans, the 28,000-square-foot store will be capped with 62 residential units, seven below market rate, and will sit on three levels of underground parking, tripling the current number of spaces. It will also be the westernmost Whole Foods location in the city, potentially drawing traffic eastward through the park.

“We talked briefly with Trader Joe’s and Rainbow Grocery, and sent a letter to Berkeley Bowl,” Brennan told the Guardian. “Whole Foods is the only one willing to wait for development.”

The construction is expected to take up to five years, so those in need of a local supermarket will be hard up for a while. “I’m very worried about the old ladies,” said Spencer Cumbs, who’s worked at the Cala location for 11 years and often delivers groceries for the more infirm. “Where are they going to shop?” He tells them to visit him at the Cala on California and Hyde, where he’s been transferred, but that’s a long bus ride. There’s no other full-service supermarket in the area.

Like any chain store moving into a neighborhood, Whole Foods could hurt small local businesses, like Haight Street Market, an organic grocery started 25 years ago by Gus and Dmitri Vardakastanis and currently managed by the third generation of the family, Bobby Vardakastanis. “I don’t know if the neighborhood could support it,” Bobby told us. “But we have a lot of loyal customers who don’t want to see us get hurt.”

Fresh Organics, on the corner of Stanyan and Carl, is also optimally situated to take a hit. “This place rocks,” said Erik Christoffersen, with his daughter strapped to his back and arms full of local produce. But he confesses he’d shop at Whole Foods too. “They don’t get meats and fish,” he says of the local corner store. A recent Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council meeting on the future of the site drew some 80 residents. According to Calvin Welch, HANC’s housing and land use chair, the major concerns were that Whole Foods is too high-end and, he included, that “people would prefer a unionized grocery store like Cala.”

The union issue is huge all over California, where unionized grocery stores are trying to compete against giant nonunion competitors like Wal-Mart. And the San Francisco supervisors are trying to give locals a degree of protection.

A new Grocery Worker’s Retention Ordinance, signed into law by Mayor Newsom on May 12, mandates a 90-day period of continued employment for grocery workers when retail stores larger than 15,000 square feet change hands. It would benefit workers at union stores, like Cala, that are replaced by nonunion retailers, like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Sup. Fiona Ma, who introduced the measure, was inspired by a meeting with employees facing potential job losses due to new ownership at three Albertson’s stores in the city, Bill Barnes, an aide to Ma, told us. An endorsement of her run for State Assembly from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 648, which advocated for the ordinance, was probably pretty inspiring as well.

Still, the bill comes too late to help the Cala workers. Employees at the Haight Ashbury store have been transferred to other locations, while ten workers trumped by their seniority have been laid off.

Originally published May 23, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian