After 11 long years, Real Food site may get new life

  • Carol Yenne (right) and Sophia Abrams enjoy a light moment in Small Frys Tuesday December 2, 2014. A San Francisco, Calif. store on 24th Street that has been shuttered for 11 years will soon be the site of a new retail venture thanks in part to Carol Yenne who owns a store up the street. Photo: Brant Ward / The Chronicle / ONLINE_YES


No, Mark Zuckerberg’s much-discussed home renovation in Noe Valley isn’t the neighborhood’s most controversial real estate development. That honor goes to Real Food, an organic grocery store that prompted bitter recriminations when it closed 11 years ago and is sure to generate as much debate thanks to a new plan for the 24th Street site.

The proposal as it stands: retail on the 3,300 square-foot ground floor and two stories of residential units above.

But first some backstory to help you understand what the the district’s supervisor described as “this decade-plus saga.” Just before Labor Day 2003, Real Food’s owner, Nutraceutical International, a health supplements company in Park City, Utah, shut the grocery store’s doors without notice, leaving loyal customers and supppliers bereft and 30 employees out of a job.

The company said that the reason was needed renovation of the site. The employees said it was because they were planning to unionize.

Neighborhood concern turned to anger and workers turned to the National Labor Relations Board (In February 2009, the board ruled in favor of the employees, awarding back pay totaling $371,219, but no right of return to Real Food jobs).

Things got nasty. “In Noe Valley, respect for employees and respect for customers is central to the philosophy of the neighborhood,” a community organizer told The Chronicle at the time. “I’m one neighbor who won’t forget about this.”

Some still haven’t, although the neighborhood has changed considerably since then, said Carol Yenne, who owns Small Frys, a children’s clothing store one block from Real Food on 24th Street. In fact Yenne, who headed the Noe Valley Merchants Association at the time, had been in communication with the company, via “cards and letters,” trying to reopen the store or replace it with something else. But two obstacles stood in the way: the backlash felt by the company, especially during what Yenne called “the dark years,” followed by the Great Recession when commercial real estate development everywhere came to a dead stop.

It also may have felt gun shy on account of a legal battle with the building’s previous owners in the mid-2000s, which ended when Nutraceutical bought the property.

Circumstances changed last year, perhaps coincidentally as real estate was roaring back, when Yenne, and another neighbor who had connections with the company and Supervisor Scott Wiener, flew to Park City to meet with the owners in person. Lo and behold, they were told, there were plans to develop it. The San Francisco delegation had ideas of their own, which the owners cordially entertained.

On the table as of now, and to be presented at a community meeting next month — with Nutraceutical representatives invited — is retail topped by housing. That is not dissimilar to plan floated by Nutraceutical in 2009, but it went no further, possibly because Whole Foods had signed a lease that year to move into the former Bell Market space across the street.

Having waited this long, a little longer is only to be expected. The building has to be demolished — application required, plans submitted to City Hall, conditional permits sought, and so forth. “It could take several months,” Wiener said. “We’re looking at the latter part of next year, or 2016” for completion.

That assumes everything goes right, and what we’re looking at is not a mirage.

I called Nutraceutical for comment Tuesday but did not get a call back. The public company, which has two other Real Food stores in the city, in the Russian Hill and Cow Hollow neighborhoods, reported net sales of $214.5 million for the year that ended Sept. 30, compared with $208.4 million last year. Net profit dipped from $17 million in 2013 to $15.9 million this year.

The community meeting to discuss the plans is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at St. Philip the Apostle Church, 725 Diamond St. Assuming Nutraceutical folks accept the invitation, it won’t be the first time they’ve been here. In February 2009, they attended, by invitation, a town hall meeting sponsored by the Noe Valley Democratic Club.

As a new Noe homeowner — not to mention a tech mogul — Zuckerberg might have reason to attend as well. One Noe Valley merchant suggested that an Apple store could would be a great replacement for Real Food.

Andrew S. Ross is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: asross@sfchronicle.com Blog: http://blog.sfgate.com/bottomline Twitter: @andrewsross