An unscrupulous entrepreneur targets a Nob Hill institution
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"There was three men come out o' the west, their fortunes for to try,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn must die.
They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in, throwed clods upon his head,
And these three men made a solemn vow, John Barleycorn was dead."
From an old English folk song
It's a dark, rainy Friday night, and Larkin Street is eerily quiet except for one beacon of light: the John Barleycorn pub. Inside this almost 40-year-old watering hole, logs crackle in a fireplace built with cobblestones from old San Francisco streets.
Neighbors, law students from a nearby university, and longtime regulars cluster together on cable car benches and onetime church pews, tippling and talking quietly beneath a ceiling made from the beams of an old Petaluma chicken coop.
Behind the bar, owner Larry Ayre, with rosy cheeks hugged by a pair of spectacles, serves drinks and good cheer the same way he has for more than three decades. Some of his customers have been coming here for just as long.
"There's only one bar you call your home bar, and somehow, they have to take you in," Ayre said. "In here, you can be whoever you want to be."
Unfortunately for the Barleycorn, its lease is up, and it's part of a building that was recently purchased by Louisa Hanson, a controversial local entrepreneur who owns several other properties in the area, including Louisa's on Union Street and Delaney's in the Marina. Hanson refuses to renew the Barleycorn's lease, and it's rumored she plans to turn the building into a new restaurant.
So tonight the mood is bittersweet. Ayre's birthday is tomorrow, and neighbors are already stopping by. But no one's forgetting that the pub's doom is imminent, and unless a miracle happens the beloved bar will shut its doors October 26. For good.
Pub supporters nonetheless began appealing to Hanson last December when they heard of her plans not to renew the 'Corn's lease. They tried to make the case that the popular pub is the right size and scale for the neighborhood, that any other venture would be hard to support in such a tough retail environment, and that the bar is so well loved, Hanson would alienate potential future customers by closing it.
But the notoriously elusive Hanson who's obtained licenses for more than 22 businesses in the past two decades, most of which closed within two years or never opened at all wouldn't discuss the future of the 'Corn, much less consider their pleas.
In an effort to save it, weekend bartender and longtime patron Tony Antico helped found the Save the John Barleycorn Coalition. Volunteers gathered more than 4,000 signatures from friends and fans in 30 countries and 20 states. They staged a demonstration outside Hanson's Union Street restaurant. They lined up formal support from the SF Appreciation Society, the Polk Corridor Business and Middle Polk Neighborhood associations, Lower Polk Neighbors, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, who represents the district. The Board of Supervisors even passed a resolution commending the pub and recommending it be kept open.
"In America you can be a mean nut, and if you own property, the law protects you," Peskin told the Guardian.
Despite all the effort, Hanson is heavily invested in the property and appears to have little incentive to back off now. Public records show that she first bought it for $2.3 million in autumn 2005 and then took out two loans against it totaling $2.5 million.
She seems so eager to develop the property, in fact, that in June city building inspectors found ongoing construction work being conducted at Barleycorn's neighbor, the former Front Room, without a permit, including taking out a wall and removing fixtures.
But Hanson is no stranger to conflict. Superior Court records show that she's been the target of a fairly steady stream of litigation since the 1980s, ranging from allegations that she refused to pay contractors or employees to charges that she disregarded contractual agreements with business partners.
One case, brought against Hanson in 2003 by the former owners of her Marina restaurant, alleged that she agreed to a purchase but then withheld payments in hopes of forcing a better deal when the sellers grew desperate. According to the suit, the "alleged secret intent" of Hanson "constitutes an intentional misrepresentation, deceit, or concealment of a material fact that has caused injury" to the former owners. A judge ruled against Hanson and demanded that she pay the plaintiffs $183,674.
That case didn't surprise Vickie Hall, who had a similar experience when she tried to sell her coffee shop in Amador County to Hanson earlier this year. After agreeing to pay full price for Hall's homegrown business, Hanson allegedly held the deal in escrow, and therefore off the market for sale to someone else, until Hall would agree to a lower purchase price.
Hall claims that when she begrudgingly agreed but asked for a higher deposit, Hanson simply never responded to the counteroffer. Hall says Hanson couldn't be reached for six weeks to sign over the original deposit money.
"It was a bad situation with a woman who I think is ruthless and could give a hoot about how her business practices are handled," said Hall, now living in Arkansas, who only sold the business because she and her partner are now on disability.
Look Hanson up on Yelp.com and you'll find a litany of complaints from former employees, neighbors, business partners, and customers. There's even a blog dedicated to the "eccentricities and out-and-out weirdness of San Francisco's worst entrepreneur," located at Luisaconfidential.blogspot.com.
In fact, Barleycorn supporter John Clark, who has lived in the city 25 years and worked in local restaurants for eight years, was warned by peers not to pursue a job in any of her restaurants, so he avoided them.
"She's a bad businesswoman and unscrupulous," Clark said. And the Barleycorn "is a great little English pub. I'm tired of the character that makes this city what it is getting sucked out of it. This is just another long-standing neighborhood institution being closed because of greed."
So far, Hanson has refused to discuss the Barleycorn, not returning calls from Ayre, Peskin, or the Guardian for this story. Her response to the demonstration outside her Union Street business was to give pub supporters the Italian version of the bird (video posted at savethebarleycorn.org).
In fact, the only thing anyone, including government officials, can do now is make it hard for her to open a new business in the building by changing zoning laws or refusing permits actions that may hurt Hanson in the long run but won't change the Barleycorn's fate.
For now, the 'Corn's supporters are trying to maintain their optimism while being realistic. At Ayre's birthday party Oct. 13, patrons continued to add their names to the petition at the end of the bar while Ayre's wife explained where in their house the couple would put the historic wooden countertop once the bar closes. But no one will be done enjoying the establishment, or fighting to keep it open, until the last minute of its last day.
"I always believe that little miracles can happen," Peskin said. "I'm waiting for one."