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Residents critical of proposed downtown gourmet supermarket

By Elizabeth Pfeffer

August 8, 2006

A forthcoming addition to San Francisco's dithering grocery store industry will bring a new upscale food retailer to the downtown area - fodder for residents and workers resisting the high-end trend that seems to be edging in on neighborhood markets.

Bristol Farms, a chic Southern California chain, is preparing to open its first Bay Area store in the newly renovated Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street. The luxury mall has undergone a colossal expansion to provide the grocery store with 30,000-square-feet of commercial space next to a 1,500-seat food court.

Kevin Davis, president, chairman and CEO of Bristol Farms, continued efforts yesterday to secure an off-sale liquor license for the new store. Like the chain's other locations, Davis plans for this one to sell beer and wine as well as hold regular tastings.

The license was heard for a second time before the Board of Supervisors' City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee yesterday afternoon, while residents and labor union representatives also took the meeting as an opportunity to voice concerns on the company as a whole.

In particular, there's been debate over Bristol Farm's relationship to Albertsons. Five moderately-priced neighborhood grocery stores closed in San Francisco this year due to a reported lack of profits - two were Albertsons - and 11 more of their Bay Area locations are closing this month.

"Some of the confusion around Bristol Farms ties to the fact that we previously had been owned by Albertsons as a wholly owned subsidiary of that company," Davis said. "That company recently sold, as of June 2 of this year, and was divided into many pieces."

According to Davis, the Northern California Albertsons are now owned by an investment firm called Cerberus which is in no way affiliated with Albertsons. Yet there's still some confusion as to whether Bristol Farms' 14 Southern California stores are tied to the company.

It appears Bristol Farms is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Supervalu Inc., but Alan Davis, attorney for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 648, appealed to the committee to delay the liquor license until stronger evidence of their ownership and accordance with San Francisco labor agreements is provided.

Bristol Farms boasts above-market salaries, recognizes domestic partnerships within their benefits packages for full and part-time employees and offers 401K plans. They also claim to have been working with their landlord Westfield to abide by all wage ordinances.

"That isn't so clear from what we've seen so far, and we think that matter needs additional research on every level," Davis said. "To see whether it applies, the extent to which it applies and then to verify whether or not the agreements have been lived up to by everyone."

Westfield was unavailable for comment.

Some residents found it alarming that an upscale grocery would be put in an "unpractical" location like a mall, and wondered why it couldn't be done in neighborhoods that have lost their supermarkets.

It was pointed out by public commenter Michael Nulty that North Market, which encompasses much of the Tenderloin and is home to many disabled, elderly and immobile individuals, sorely lacks a real grocery store, and that the low-income residents with the means to get to Bristol Farms won't be able to afford the gourmet costs.

Whole Foods, another pricey grocery supermarket, offers senior discounts at some of their locations, according to Nulty. He suggested Bristol Farms do the same.

The bottom line for residents was a question of what the company will do to better the community.

One response by Kevin Davis was that some of the 45 job candidates already offered positions for their grand opening on Sept. 28 are former employees of the City's ill-fated Cala Foods and Albertsons.

The liquor license will be heard by the full Board of Supervisors on August 15 while Bristol Farms tries to iron out informational discrepancies.

They have already expressed a commitment to keeping alcohol from individuals under 21 years of age and complying to standard licensing provisions suggested by the San Francisco Police Department.




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