24th St. Food Fight Rages On

by Lorraine Sanders on September 2, 2004

If you see a tomato heading down 24th St. this Saturday, it’s not one of those menacing vegetable flashbacks. Those vegetables, and all the people with them, will be marching on the one-year anniversary of the Real Food grocery store closure. Since shutting its doors last Labor Day, the vacant store space formerly occupied by Real Food has fueled neighborhood unrest. Not only did Noe Valley lose its largest, most convenient organic food source, but it also saw 24th St. foot traffic decrease dramatically, forcing at least five longtime retailers to close their doors.

Despite appearances, the tale of the 24th St. food fight is about much more than the departure of Real Food or longer travel time for farm fresh groceries. Rather, the multi-layered conflict that allegedly resulted in the popular store’s closure and a vacancy of almost unheard of length for such a prominent shopping corridor has garnered the attention of the Board of Supervisors, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the National Labor Relations Board and plenty of neighborhood residents.

Late last August, Real Food employees say they came to work as usual and, without warning, were told that the store was closing, effective immediately. Such an abrupt closure for a business with 20 years of neighborhood history understandably struck both employees and neighborhood shoppers as odd. Why would a successful business operating in a highly coveted retail space slap brown paper up on its walls and lock its doors without some sort of explanation?

According to Liz Highleyman’s article in the Oct. 2003 Noe Valley Voice, “a sign posted in the window of the now papered-over storefront. decided to ‘initiate a remodeling process’ with the aim of ‘enhancing the shopping experience and improving the product mix.'”

Although the official reason for the Real Food closure cited necessary store enhancements, a host of former employees says remodeling was the last thing on the minds of Nutraceutical management. Employees allege that fears of union organizing, and not a desire to improve store interiors, prompted Fresh Organics and its parent company Nutraceutical International Corporation to shut down the store.

In Highleyman’s article, employees claim that two workers were fired “for being a ‘bad influence'” and “‘spreading negativity'” after they began meeting in May 2003 with Industrial Workers of the World representatives. The employees were apparently seeking advice about organizing a union for Real Food employees. After the firings, another employee quit in protest.

Despite the loss of three workers, the rest of the employees pressed on. Eventually, two workers secured a meeting with their local store manager and executives from Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics. At the meeting, the workers say that Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics management agreed to meet with them again in Sept. 2003. A few weeks later, the store had padlocks on its doors.

Shocked, employees filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. In the three separate complaints that were filed, employees allege that Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics learned of plans to unionize employees and that those plans caused them to close the store. Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics Marketing Director and company spokesperson Sergio Diaz claimed then, and continues to claim, that closing the store had nothing to do with employee union organizing. Giving employees and local residents notice, Diaz has consistently maintained, would have caused too much disruption within the store and surrounding community. Instead of warning, Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics offered workers two-weeks’ severance pay.

In his Sept. 24 column in the San Francisco Chronicle, David Lazarus reported that Diaz even denied knowledge of the workers’ union organizing activities, although former workers Simon Knaphus and Jonathan Burkett claim they handed Diaz a list of demands and “openly discussed workers’ union activity,” during their Aug. 2003 meeting.

Those employees, along with New College law professor Peter Gabel and concerned neighborhood residents, will be marching down 24th St. on Saturday to show that, even a year later, their anger and disappointment remains. While employees and sympathetic residents have spent the last year fuming about Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics’ allegedly unfair labor practices, other residents oppose the closure for different reasons.

From 1970-2002, Real Food was owned by Kimball and Jane Allen, Marin residents who continue to own the building and lease the property to Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics. In a neighborhood fiercely suspicious of chain stores, the sale and subsequent closure of Real Food struck fear in many residents’ hearts. An out-of-state owner would have no reason to respect neighborhood concerns and quirks. Prices could rise and inventory might not offer residents the products they had long come to expect from their local grocery store.

Amid the turmoil during the fall of 2003, it seemed, momentarily at least, that Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics might make good on its promise to remodel the store and reopen it quickly. By Nov., Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics had hired a construction team to demolish the stores’ interiors in preparation for future remodeling. A notice estimating job completion by the end of Jan. 2004 appeared on the storefront.

After a little research, local activists were surprised to find no permit for interior remodeling on file with city officials. If Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics had actually planned to remodel before closing Real Food’s doors, no official city records substantiated that claim. And if you stroll down 24th St. today, you’ll still find brown paper covering the windows. At the time, concerned Noe Valley residents could only hope for the best.

As they waited for further information from the NLRB, the Department of Building Inspection and Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics executives, activists and residents rallied together, organizing town meetings and communicating with city supervisors. Neighborhood residents also worked hard to counter the loss of fresh produce. One group discussed buying Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics out, then turning the store into a locally owned coop. Others helped get the new Noe Valley Farmers Market off the ground in the Noe Valley Ministry’s parking lot.

According to messages on the Real Food Yahoo! Groups message board, Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics communicated to Bevan Dufty its refusal to enter into a mediated settlement with former employees or community members on Feb. 12. Despite this, those who opposed the company’s Noe Valley presence felt continued pressure could convince Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics to leave in the future. Soon after, word hit the message boards that Bi-Rite, a specialty grocery store on 18th St., and MikeyTom, a recently closed grocery store once located at 30th St., had an interest in the 24th St. space. If the community could somehow convince Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics to leave, locally owned stores would line up to take its place.

By March, neighborhood residents had to wonder what, exactly, was keeping Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics from beginning its supposed remodeling project. Logically, any business-minded company would want to open its doors and start making money as quickly as possible. But Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics had hit a snag. Remodeling the store would not be a simple affair.

In March, Liz Highleyman wrote in the Noe Valley Voice, “According to Marketing Director Sergio Diaz, the company discovered substantial structural problems with the building and is currently negotiating with building owners Jane and Kimball Allen on how to solve them. Nutraceutical holds an option to lease the property for 12 years, renewable in three-year increments.”

While the exact disagreements are unclear, residential rumors and message board posts suggest that the Allens felt certain repairs were the sole responsibility of Real Food’s new owners, while Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics wanted the elderly couple to cover the cost of building repairs. Negotiations remain at a standstill. For the next three years, at least, Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics holds the lease to the property. Whether or not it will foot the bill for repairs is another story entirely.

According to Peter Gabel’s press release for the Sat. rally, “Neither the Utah corporation nor the Mill Valley-based landlords of the property, Kimball and Jane Allen, have shown any serious concern for the effect of this closure on the fabric of Noe Valley. Furthermore, Nutraceutical/Fresh Organics seems to believe, based on recent rumors that will be reported in the forthcoming September issue of the Noe Valley Voice, that they can simply reopen when they wish without addressing and correcting the economic and moral injustices they have inflicted on our community.”

The rally will begin at 11:45 on Saturday, Sept. 4. Meet at the Noe Valley Farmers Market between Sanchez and Vicksburg. Afterwards, attendees will march down 24th St. to the vacant storefront.

You can reach Lorraine Sanders at lorraine@lorrainesanders.com.

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